Of all of the problems I expected I would encounter in the present, the “grammar police” have not turned out to be one of them. I can remember, however, believing that these linguistic vigilantes were the greatest possible antagonist of me and my peers, expected to ambush either online or in person. I anticipated their correction of my admittedly irrelevant Facebook status for its misuse of “their” and “they’re,” and dreaded being cut off mid-sentence in the hallway for a lack of subject-verb agreement. In recent history, I have not encountered their kind again, and I cannot confirm that my memories of such encounters were not fever dreams.
Have you heard the ancient proverb that “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain?”
As a copy editor for The Daily Californian, it seems that I have donned the grammar police hat myself. Most satisfying is catching spelling errors that might otherwise reflect poorly on the author (not that we could really blame someone for such a mistake — English spelling is so inconsistent) or correcting a confusing sentence structure. The night department is the last set of eyes charged with the shared goal of publishing accurate information accessible to our readers without obstacles like awkward syntax. With few exceptions, we have free reign to modify content and such modifications are accompanied by consequences that reshape the threat of the grammar police.
In light of our strict adherence to AP Style, a concern arises: at what point does editing toe the line between revision and identity erasure? Written English commonly disseminated in newspapers and spoken by news reporters — referred to as standard English — is obviously different from that we use among friends or in the classroom. Because the purpose of standard English purports to be clarity, it receives a privileged usage in spoken and written news. Because of this privileged usage, it often finds itself idealized and then used to debase non-standard English, especially in spoken dialects such as African-American Vernacular English, or AAVE.
In proofreading and correcting style, do copy editors at the Daily Cal and other news outlets run the risk of perpetuating the unfair hierarchy separating different but equally valid varieties of the English language? Has the question of clarity been confounded with the question of conformity? Might we consider that our “grammar police” are subject to the same biases of other civil servants?
Perhaps news outlets have a particular style and there isn’t anything else to say on the matter. However, I think it is difficult to ignore that different dialects are allowed to be expressed in narrative, poetry, movie dialogue and journaling in notebooks or on social media. Why then, are they kept out of the written, published word that is expected to represent and report the day to day ongoings of our society? Have newspapers landed in some ground between author and audience, speaking in a language foreign to both? That in mind, in the hopes that it will help untangle biased practices from standardized language, this night department seeks to be cognizant of the trappings of tradition.
Contact Isabella Castrodale at [email protected]