Laura Moyer is a compulsive copy editor who reads the AP Stylebook for fun.
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A linguist responds: Guest column from Daniel Midgley

Yesterday I posted a column that leads with the tale of an email conversation I had with a linguist from Perth, Australia. His name is Daniel Midgley, and I sent him a link.

Turns out he didn’t actually boil his computer, because he used it to write this Red Pen guest column, a response to my post.

A Linguist Responds

By Daniel Midgley

Some people get nervous when they find out I’m a linguist. They think I’m silently monitoring their grammar, ready to strike down every ‘like’ and every text abbreviation in an effort to maintain the purity of the language.

Eh, not a chance. We linguists are actually very relaxed about the way people use language. Say ‘nucular’ instead of ‘nuclear’, and you may drive some people crazy, but a linguist will probably grab a pen and start asking you questions about your hometown. Our job is to describe how people use language, not to prescribe how they should use it.

And yet this advice leaves copy editors (like the effervescent Laura Moyer) out in the cold. What are they supposed to do? Correcting people on their usage is their job. And a needed job, too — not to prevent language decay (whatever that means), but to make sure their publication adheres to the style they want.

As Laura has pointed out in a recent column, though, some editors have some pretty strange rules. She mentions one editor who alleged that states don’t have ‘borders’, but ‘lines’. And some insist that legal actions are ‘lawsuits’ and not ‘suits’. These rules have nothing to do with how people really use language, and seem to originate from the editors themselves. Laura rightly calls these rules ‘baloney’.

So how can you tell a piece of baloney from good, solid writing practice?

Laura names some good resources (and I do like Grammar Girl). But we can do better than appealing to experts. We now have easy-to-use tech tools that allow us to look for real patterns in real publications.

A resource that you can use at your computer right now is Google’s Ngram Viewer. (Don’t let the name intimidate you; an n-gram is just a string of words. The phrase ‘box of chocolates’ is a 3-gram.) Google has digitized millions of books over hundreds of years, and we can search through them with just a few keystrokes.

So if we head to the Ngram Viewer and search for “state border, state line” (don’t forget the comma between them), it shows us a graph of how popular these two phrases have been throughout history. It seems that “state line” has been used more often, at least in books. If we want to play it safe in our writing, best keep away from the state border.

Remember our ‘lawsuit’ v ‘suit’ editors? We could search for “won the suit, won the lawsuit” (to help us distinguish between different kinds of ‘suits’). When we do, we find that authors have always used “won the suit” much more often than “won the lawsuit”, even in the days of Mark Twain.

What about that old bugbear “There is a number of…” versus “There are a number of…”? We could argue all day over which is more logical and correct, but why not see what real writers do? When we look up these two phrases, we find that the ‘are’ version is overwhelmingly more popular. Does that mean it’s right? Let’s just say that if you use it, you’ll be in very good company.

Every editor will still have to make her own choices. But now these choices can be informed by real data from real people. With today’s tech tools and a little cleverness, it’s never been easier to detect prescriptive baloney.

Daniel Midgley is a linguist in Perth, Australia, and the author of the blog “Good Reason.”