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When Alexander Pope (1688-1744) warned, “A little learning is a dangerous thing,” he was, among other things, explaining why editors and proofreaders – even us here at ProofreadingPal – so often find ourselves in antagonistic relationships with writers. It all goes back to school. Most writing teachers are intelligent, sincere and well-intentioned – whether working with second graders or high school seniors – but most are not writers. What most teachers know about the art and craft of writing comes from people not unlike themselves. And so most students are burdened with half-truths and ill-founded “rules” that are blithely passed from grade to grade and generation to generation. These English teachers are examples of Pope’s observation: They learned a little about writing – just enough to make them dangerous.
And that’s one basic reason why this battle between editors and writers rages. Writers have something to say, and they want to say it in the most effective way possible. But too many English teachers are more worried about how it’s being said and about enforcing rules that have no business being rules in the first place: Don’t end a sentence with a preposition. Don’t start a sentence with a conjunction. Don’t write sentence fragments. Don’t split an infinitive. Yet almost no one bothers to ask the crucial question: “Why not?
Fortunately, Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek, is one writer who knew better than to follow the “rules.” His famous split infinitive – “…to boldly go where no one has gone before…” is a classic example of meaning over form. And about 40 years after Roddenberry broke the rules, the rules changed. Even the stodgy arbiter of taste, the Oxford English Dictionary, now admits that split infinitives are proper English.
And so it is that writers often clash with the “little learning” of their teachers, their editors, and their proofreaders. To live in peace, the combatants need to realize they share the same goal. They need to realize that writers are the key components, and the editors or proofreaders wouldn’t even exist without them. Writers write because they have something they need and want to communicate. How they do that should be up to them. Effective editors and proofreaders do not exist to apply strangleholds on writers. Instead, they want to help writers say what they have to say in the most effective way possible. So no one should ever forget, even as this cage match of the centuries continues between writers and those who would edit them, that the message should always trump the maxim. Give peace a chance.
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