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An article in the Des Moines Register by one Larry Ballard announced the other day that legislators were pondering a tax to be levied on lapses in grammar: "The tax would be levied on bad grammar in signs, advertisements, etc. It would target typos, misspellings, strange punctuation and dangling participles (they are nowhere near as painful as they sound) and would be enforced anywhere English is used."
The correspondent who wrote to me about the article speculates that it was an April Fools’ Day item that got into the paper by mistake. It appears to have been taken down from the main page at the paper’s Web site, but, of course, versions live on in cyberspace.
Killjoy as I am, I don’t necessary disparage April Fools’ gags in newspapers, though most of them are even more inane than other newspaper humor, and it does seem a little peculiar for a business that relies on credibility to take so much relish in lies. But let that pass.
No, what bothers me is that the article grows out of a widespread attitude that grammar is the equivalent of a law code, something to be enforced on the populace. Thus we have editors who refer to themselves as “grammar cops, “grammar police” and the like. That kind of talk reinforces the impression that copy editors are like librarians padding through the room and hissing “Shush!”
I used to be a chief, and I have deputies, but I am not a cop. I don’t think that copy editors should think about themselves as cops. We’re editors. Our job is not to write citations but to draw out of the texts we edit their central meanings, clearly expressed.
All languages have dialects, and the dialect with which I concern myself at work is the one called formal written English. I may cringe at the way bureaucrats talk, or swear at the writing in the instructions for U.S. Form 1040, or walk away from people who have incorporated text-messaging abbreviations into their speech; but those are all matters of personal taste and preference. Not my job. You want me to clean up your prose, hire me, and I’ll tell you what I think works and what I think doesn’t work.
But you won’t wind up in the slammer.