I recently received an email from a person who wanted to know only about my rate structure (contact me for information) so he would know how much to charge a relative who insisted on paying him for editing her dissertation. After a couple emails back and forth with him, I found out that he does not want to go into editing as a part-time or side job because he thinks his skills are a bit too “old-fashioned” to be able to offer the sort of help students and their advisers are seeking today. This is mainly because he sees the same thing I have noticed in the years since I started writing (and subsequently editing) college papers: English scholars, professors, advisers, and students are shifting away from a focus on the rules of grammar and spelling and moving toward an emphasis on effective communication (sometimes at the expense of those rules).
While I do generally agree with him that adhering to the accepted rules of grammar, spelling, and punctuation will tend to result in clear communication and reduced ambiguity, those older rules no longer seem to be the necessary means to the desired end. Many readers, be they professors, advisers, committees, or the general public, want first and foremost to understand what a writer is trying to communicate, and grammar’s role today, as I have noticed it, is not to hold up ideas by being correct, but to be correct enough not to hold them back.
This seems like a weaker position for an institution that has until very recently been seen as key to effective communication, but I do not believe that it is. Grammar is just as important today as it was a century ago; it has just been moved to the second step of writing. Previously, a student would write with grammar first in mind, whereas today students are frequently instructed to get ideas out first and worry about grammar second. However, without a minimum of correct grammar, usage, spelling, and punctuation, communication is impeded, sometimes lost, and other times very much in place, but now how the writer wants (poor grammar very effectively communicates something else entirely, and it is negative). Grammar still matters, and while it is no longer the first tool of effective communication, it is still necessary to communicate both the ideas of the writer and the reader’s ideas about the writer. (Of course, there is the important discussion on language and privilege*, but this is not the place for that because something so significant should be more than a tangent.)
While I do check clients’ work for grammar and will correct for most mistakes, I tend only to comment on the most egregious errors, those that impede communication, distract from the overall point of the work, or those that make the writer look terribly uneducated or sloppy. In general, I want my clients’ ideas to be clear and well-developed so the reader is not left wondering what is trying to be said or whether the writer (a) very recently learned written English (which is different from spoken English) or (b) has not yet completed third grade.
Always, my goal is my client’s goal: To get published, get someone to read the book, get an A, pass the class, get the job, finally finish the degree, or whatever else has motivated them to seek me out. A writer’s book, essay, thesis, dissertation, or other means of communicating their ideas in writing, is about them their goals, not me and mine.
To that end, while I check for and correct grammar to the standards of APA, Strunk & White, or whatever else has been requested, I keep in mind that the days of grammar as the number one priority are essentially gone. A book or paper that is heavily stilted** by strict adherence to rules is difficult to read and begs to be put down. Basically, too much grammar is today as bad as too little.
*”For one thing, the idea that there is only one right way of doing English – and everyone else is doing it wrong – is inherently flawed. And by “flawed” I mean illogical, elitist and even oppressive. Judgements about what counts as “right”, “good” and “correct” in writing and grammar always – ALWAYS – align with characteristics of the dialects spoken by privileged, mostly wealthy, mostly white people.”
**”A stilted style is difficult to read and detracts from the contents. To avoid a stilted style, write in a way that comes easily, using words and phrases that come naturally to you. Do not try to impress readers with your vocabulary, but be certain that the words you use convey your exact meaning. Your readers will be interested in what you have to say and not in how eloquently you say it. Avoid long, complicated terms if shorter and more familiar ones are available. But be careful not to use jargon because it may be misinterpreted.”