Quite some time ago, I was critiquing catalog write-ups, some of which I’d written, in a roomful of writers and marketers. A particular piece contained a phrase that read something like this: “A tale where such and such . . .” I made the suggestion that we change “where” to “in which.”
One of the people in the room smirked and said, “So you’re an ‘in which’ guy.”
I don’t recall my response, but I remember being taken aback. Like most people, I don’t cotton* to those who assume things about me and smugly cast me as a certain type. The implication was worse than that I didn’t know a specific grammar point. The implication was that there was a rule governing a usage and that I was blindly following that rule, even if a less formal usage would have been perfectly suitable, and maybe even preferred, in the context.
To set your mind at ease, this film does not resume with me turning that room into The Wild Bunch. The comment did stick with me, though, most likely because I’m sensitive to how I’m perceived. It’s bad to be thought incompetent, but it’s far worse to be thought ridiculous, and I like to think of myself as the opposite of someone who mindlessly enforces rules across all situations, no matter the appropriateness.
I’d meant this blog post to be about the attitude one takes toward grammar, and I had thought to compare that attitude to one that a person might take toward politics. I was going to levy charges against marrying oneself to a viewpoint, whether it be right, left, prescriptivist, or descriptivist. I meant to talk about my self-loathing in regard to the scornful “reasonable” view. I was even going to talk about free will, but all that will have to wait for another post. I’ve realized that this post (admittedly a self-serving one in many ways) is about something more basic: why one edits.
Return to the Theatre.
Many years ago, my office mates and I were charged with assembling going-away gifts for a colleague named Lars, who was leaving our group to strike out on his own. Someone in the office (an accountant, not an editor, mind you) had decorated and labeled a container as “Lars’ Jar.” I don’t remember what was to go in the jar, but it was likely to be filled with well-wishing notes or something of the like.
One of my other coworkers, fancying herself a grammar guru, made a showy display of hand-wringing over her contention that it should be written “Lars’s Jar.” She was sorely aggrieved that anyone who saw the jar would assume that Lars, in essence, had worked with a group of slack-jawed yokels, presumably because it was such an eye-poppingly huge punctuation gaffe.
First things [deleted] last: The manner of forming the possessive of a singular noun ending in s is a style decision. Chicago recommends apostrophe-s, while Associated Press style, for instance, recommends the apostrophe alone (saving even a single space in a newspaper column can be a big deal). But even if it were something as uncontestable as misusing “its” for “it’s,” longtime fans of Steven Goff’s informative soccer blog would recognize the woman’s outrage as nothing short of “overegging the pudding.”
The point isn’t the right or wrong of the matter but why the comment was made in the first place. It seems clear that it was meant to mark the commenter as in some way superior while at the same time disparaging the person who’d taken the trouble to craft the jar. In the workplace or out, correcting other people’s grammar is often done for similar reasons, and many have undoubtedly witnessed someone wielding the “Never end a sentence with a preposition!” stick to carry out just this form of tyranny.
It’s not why I edit.
In the Robert Rodriguez vampire flick From Dusk Till Dawn, murdering thief Seth Gecko (George Clooney) discovers that his brother Richie (Quentin Tarantino) has brutally assaulted an innocent cleaning woman. Horrified, Seth tells Richie, “Do you think this is who I am? I am a professional thief. I don’t kill people I don’t have to.”
When I see an editor lording his or her knowledge (or supposed knowledge) over someone else for the purpose of belittling that person, I think, This is not who I am.
I like to imagine that copy editors are much like trash men, who during their largely unseen, early-morning rounds clean up our towns and cities. Copy editors, also largely unseen, clean up our text. I’m comfortable with the blue-collar nature of both jobs, and the world is a better place without garbage overflowing bins or dangling modifiers confusing our text.
I recently interviewed someone for an editing position, and during the interview I allowed as to how I enjoy editing, how I enjoy being alone with a stack of pages and keeping at my desk. In an attempt to be ingratiating, the person said something along the lines of, “It’s good to correct other people, isn’t it?”
No, that isn’t me. I’d rather think that what I’m doing is helpful to other people. I like to do a good job and be acknowledged for it, sure. I can’t deny a certain self-congratulatory impulse to pat myself on the back every time I mark an edit. I’m not proud of it, but it’s there. At the same time, I’d like to think the majority of that impulse stems not from a feeling of superiority but from a sense of satisfaction at doing my job well. I can also remind myself that as editors, it’s easy to feel superior when we’re registering all the good catches we’ve made, but none of us are immune from that embarrassing gut-punch when someone finds something we’ve missed (and all editors miss from time to time).
I’m not an “in which” guy, although there are any number of times I’ll recommend using those two words over “where.” I have to imagine that “in which” guys, if they exist, don’t quote Robert Rodriguez movies. I do try to keep an editing mindset that’s consistent with being a decent person. As Seth said, “I may be a bastard, but I’m not a [deleted] bastard.”
PS: A hearty congratulations to anyone who gets the reference in the title. My only justification is that it made me laugh.
* As for the use of the word cotton: some of the write-ups were for Western novels, you lousy coffee boiler.