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August 30, 2021  |  We are not the boss of English  |  3451 hit(s)

Suppose you're having a party at home with your friends, rocking out to hits of the 90s. There's a knock on the door. Uh-oh, it's the police. What's the issue, officers? We don’t like this music, they say. You should be listening to Classic Rock.

Who are the police to tell you what music you and your friends should listen to, right? Sure, if the music is too loud, that's one thing. If there were, weirdly, some sort of ordinance that made 90s music illegal, ok. But to have the police tell you what sort of music you and your friends "should" be listening to? No.

You might not be surprised to learn that this little parable is about editing. "You" is an author. "Your friends" is the community that the author is writing for. "The police" is an editor.

Editors do enforce rules and guidelines. What they should not do is impose their own taste on a text.

I've been thinking about this because of a Twitter thread that I saw this week. (I mean, I think about this all the time, but I was most recently reminded of it this week.) The exchange went like this:

Here's a transcript of the exchange:

Them: What's a better, less annoying jargon-y word for onboarding?
Me: Are you looking for a different term because you don't like it or because the audience isn't familiar with the term?
Them: I despise the word.
Me: But if it's a term used by your readers—?
Them: I'm trying to teach them a better way.

[To be super clear: the other person in this exchange is not an editor, so this is not a professional ding at them. I'm just using this exchange as an opportunity to discuss an issue that does concern editors.]

I asked my original question because the word onboarding is well established in some disciplines, like HR. I see the term constantly at work (software company), and as far as I know everyone in our office understands the word just fine. If you're writing something for an audience of HR professionals, or even for a bunch of corporate drones (like me), onboarding is not only fine, it's the word that those people use.

Editors are of course allowed to have aesthetic preferences about language. Certain terms might strike them as silly or icky just because. I remember a discussion in the 'aughts among editors at work about the word blog, which some people just hated; others hated the word instantiate ("create an instance of"), which is widely used in the programming world. Not long ago, an author and I tried to find a replacement for the odd term outlyingness but ultimately decided that that our workarounds were not an improvement.

But an editor's feelings about a word are not a valid reason alone for making authors change it. As one of our copyediting principles states, "Have a reason for every change." There are a variety of reasons to ask authors not to use a term: the author has not used the term accurately; the term is "bad" jargon; your style guide says not to use it; it's ableist or potentially disrespectful. It's also perfectly legitimate to confer with the author about whether the audience will understand a term like onboarding or instantiate; another copyediting principle is "Know the audience."

But the many reasons to suggest changing a term do not include "because I don't like it." The editor Jonathon Owen summed this up once in a tweet:

(In case you can't see this, it says "It’s our job to make writing clear and effective, but I don’t think it’s necessarily our job to hold the line against changing usage or to defend the language from its own users. That is, nobody hired us to be in charge of the English language.")

Editors do a lot to make text better for readers. There's plenty to do with that task without also trying to be the boss of English.