Don’t get me wrong — copy editing is a fine and dandy skill to have under your belt. There’s nothing quite like cranking out a shitty essay at 3 a.m. the night before it’s due, knowing that your perfect diction and syntax will get you that coveted A. There’s nothing like the sensation of adding a comma that totally transforms the flow of a sentence. In all honesty, there’s nothing like the awareness that you’ve almost fully mastered a language, that you can write in English better than the majority of the anglophone population.
But a language, as concrete as we think it is, is merely a code made up of signs. As a media studies major, I’ve learned about the signifier and the signified, which together compose the sign. Signifiers could comprise ordered letters, such as G-R-A-M-M-A-R. The signified, then, is the mental representation that the ordered letters conjure in our mind. Therefore, when English readers see the ordered letters (signifiers) that form the word “grammar,” the concept of the structure of language (signified) comes to mind.
Now let’s say we see the word “grammaire” printed. After I typed the word, Microsoft Word immediately underlined it in red. As anglophones, our immediate instinct is to think, “That’s spelled incorrectly.” But is it? Sure, in English, it is. But in French, the letters that compose “grammaire” are the correct signifiers of our concept of grammar. This demonstrates that language and its rules — spelling, word choice and punctuation, for example — are relative.
Language is a symbol meant to convey both concrete and abstract concepts. There may be distinctions between “your” and “you’re,” but I think you would understand what I meant if I texted, “Your going to be late.” I know, I know — that was completely cringe-worthy, and I’ll never actually text that for fear it would immediately land me a spot in hell. (I’d deserve it, too.) But it still gets the point across, I guess.
So does grammar really matter? In some cases, yes, and in others, no. For instance, on the copy desk’s noble wall, a beloved quote reads, “Grammar: the difference between knowing your shit and knowing you’re shit.” Maintaining structure can, indeed, be crucial for clarity.
On the other hand, there is a rule out there that distinguishes between the usage of “that” and “which.” (Refer to the previous sentence for an example of proper usage.) But few people know the distinction; it is swiftly becoming irrelevant. Also, “on the other hand” is apparently an informal expression — so don’t use it in an essay. Who really cares, though? I won’t tell anyone that it’s taboo in the world of words if you don’t.
The thing about grammar is that it’s ever-evolving, so the rules we cherish now may someday cease to exist. Hell, the rules we cherish now may not even matter in the present.
That’s why I’m not going to get all anal-retentive over slip-ups anymore. I’ve taught myself that what constitutes the soul of writing is the message, not the often-tedious rules we attribute to helping us understand it. I guess I’m just wondering why I want (wanted?) so desperately to devote my life to maintaining rigid structure if doing so means little in the long run.
You could endeavor to understand trivial concepts such as the difference between “cement” and “concrete” or the reason I used “such as” instead of “like” in this sentence — or you could go save a few sea turtles in Costa Rica. Wholly up to you.
Whoa, a copy editor deconstructing her own profession? Blasphemy! There must be a glitch in the space-time continuum.