I’m a major fussbudget when I’m editing.
As I edit, I am fairly conservative about our language. I believe that we should respect its history and construction. That is, if there’s already a word that works, it may not be necessary to make up a new one (unless we do it for a specific purpose). Some years ago, for example, I campaigned on a listserv against the word “gaialog.” Using this stupid word instead of “dialog” to indicate women talking made me crazy. (If “gaialog” meant anything, which it doesn’t, it might mean “earth speaking.”) If you want to be speak sexistically, I told them, try “gynelog.” There—I’ve just made up two new words in a row. Don’t tell me to be consistent. There are few hobgoblins in my mind.
I get real fussbudgetty about etymology, too. We cannot just invent cognates. “Sphere” and “spirit” are not related. “Omphalos” and the meditational sound OM are not related. We should not verbize nouns. (I hate “liase.” And “calendarize”? I don’t think so.) Nor should we nominalize or adjectivize verbs (“bottom line” a project? No no no.) unless they’re gerunds or participles or in dialogue. Nor will I let you sink into jargon, again, unless it’s in dialogue. I can help you write a book that doesn’t sound like it was written by a jargon machine. That’s why I frequently discuss vocabulary with the authors whose books I’m editing.
Punctuation is important, too. I’ll punctuate your dialogue correctly and give each speaker a new paragraph. And remind you that people very seldom utter sentences with semicolons in them. I’ve told a couple authors that they’ve used up their entire lifetime supply of semicolons. I make subjects and verbs agree. I add transitions. I frequently ask what an orphan “this” refers to and point out that it properly refers to the last noun, but that just doesn’t make sense. What does it really mean?
Nonstandard or unusual English is permissible in dialogue, but sometimes I still need to work on making it consistent and intelligible. I often suggest that an author go to the mall and sit down and just listen to people. Hear the rhythms of their sentences. How people talk in sentence fragments. When we write, we have to be very careful how we use slang and dialect. If you want your dialogue to sound real, then it probably isn’t English-teacher-approved English. But your readers have to be able to read it without having to stumble through each sentence.
As far as I’m concerned, the only major sin an author can commit is making a reader have to stop, go back, and read a sentence (or a paragraph) again…not because it’s so beautifully written but because it’s incomprehensible. Our writing must be accessible. I can’t say this often enough: our readers don’t live in our heads with us. We need to write so they understand what’s on the page.
When I see the same kind of usage error over and over again, I’m likely to insert a one- or two-sentence tutorial on, say, what a comma splice error is or what the difference between active and passive voice in verbs is. I point out that pronouns replace (and have to refer to) nouns. I often cite Rules 11 and 17 from The Elements of Style. When I edit your book, I’ll explain how to correct the errors you consistently make.
I’ve also been known to issue gooder-English fatwas. I’ve told several authors they can’t ever use points of ellipsis (…) or semicolons again in their whole lives. I told another that she’s already used up her lifetime supply of the word “grab” in all its variants, another that she can’t ever write “snap” again. I deleted “by the same token” every time this meaningless phrase occurred in a book written by a lawyer. I believe that no matter how abstruse or philosophical the topic of your nonfiction book is, no matter what country the characters in your novel live in, your book (fiction or nonfiction) must be accessible to your target readers.
Another important point. Just because English has the largest vocabulary of any language on the planet, do we need to use every synonym we can find in the thesaurus just because we think we remember that our sixth-grade teacher told us not to keeping using the same word? That’s nonsense. No word is absolutely identical in meaning to another. “Write” is not quite the same as “compose,” which is not the same as “inscribe,” which is not the same as “document,” which is not the same as “scrawl,” which is not the same as “transcribe.” The thesaurus can be a valuable tool, but some naïve authors seem to think that fancier words are better. If our writing gets too fancy, our readers will just start laughing. And don’t even get me started on purple prose. (End of rant.)