For whom do we edit?
From You Don’t Say:
I feel obliged every semester to go over lie and lay, but the blunt fact is that nearly all my students are just baffled. They do not hear a distinction; they do not encounter it in speech or in much of the writing they encounter. I might as well be standing at the blackboard telling them that they will be graded on how well they grasp the middle voice in Greek.
I would much prefer to tell them that the lie/lay distinction with which their grandparents were tormented in school is over, and that, moreover, everyone/they has finally carried the day and we can all go on to discuss more interesting points of usage. But out there, still, I sense lurking the readers bringing down a metal-edged ruler on the knuckles or reaching for a rattan cane to administer six of the best.
Boldface added. All too often, editors don’t change something because it’s wrong, or even because it’s unclear, or even because it’s against house style. Often, we change it for the pedants, who will write angry letters and make snarky comments and look down on our publication for what they perceive as a grievous grammatical error.
It’s not necessarily wrong to cater to these people — after all, they are our readers, too. But perhaps it’s a question of the greater good: Should we encourage such unbending prescriptivism, which leads so many elementary-school students to question their self-worth and to live in fear of their rule-loving punctuation overlords? Should we encourage a division between those who know grammar front to back and those who simply use it to communicate on a daily basis?
And on a lighter note, I have to wonder if perhaps we’re doing the armchair grammarians a disservice. What could make them happier than the superiority they feel when they find errors in professional publications?