Perfection is in the eye of the reader;Platform;Opinion

18th December 1998 at 00:00
Terry Hyde looks at the influence of audience expectation on 'correctness' in the task of proof-reading

WHEN I agreed to write an open-learning pack for the Higher National unit on proof-reading, I first thought that the work would be a doddle.

The unit is not intended to be a revision course in grammar and only requires students to be able to proof-read and mark-up text for errors and for deviations from the original. Surely I could knock this off in a couple of weekends?

Twelve weekends later my head was still whirling with notions like Standard English, verbal hygiene, descriptivism v prescriptivism, fence-sitting, usage v correctness, appropriateness and register, Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells. It seemed that the more I read, the more confused I became, particularly over what should constitute correct grammar when proof-reading for a customer.

An open-learning pack, designed to be used with minimal tutor contact, cannot be regarded as successful if students are continually asking questions. The material must be essentially self-contained, free-standing and transparently unambiguous. Such a pack is no place to start questioning the meaning of "correct" and "incorrect". Or is it?

In a recent article in The English Review ("To boldly go and all that"), Lynda Mugglestone sums up the problem: "The fact that language is context-sensitive, not context-free . . . lies at the heart of why the absolute norms of 'correctness', often break down in the face of the far greater complexity, and demands, of real communication."

For many students mere pedagogy is sufficient for their needs: they simply want to be told that "hers" is right and "her's" is wrong so that they can record it or memorise it. For brighter students this is not enough. When told that the plural of walkman is "walkmans" and not "walkmen" they want to know why.

Students brighter still will want to know all this plus what the terms right and wrong mean. For an open-learning package on proof-reading to work effectively, all these bases must be covered.

The key concept of "ambiguity" began to dominate my planning. Ambiguity is the greatest sin a writer can commit, so does it matter if a writer uses "which" rather than "that", or "who" rather than "whom", providing that doing so does not create ambiguity?

My eventual solution to niggling questions such as these was to borrow an idea from Total Quality Management, "identify your customers' needs and then meet them". For the proof-reader, the customer is the author. All written material has an intended audience ranging from one person, eg a teacher marking an essay, to millions accessing a website.

With such widely differing audiences the proof-reading needs of customers will also vary. The proofing required by magazines like FHM, or J17 is going to be rather different to that required by The Journal of Writers to the Signet. An audience representative of the prescriptivist school like our old compadre, "Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells" will leap to the Basildon Bond at the first sight of a split infinitive within the freshly ironed pages of his Daily Telegraph.

However, his reaction is likely to be mystification rather than disgust if he should glance through his teenage daughter's copy of Sugar to discover the word "boyf" used as an abbreviation for "boyfriend".

The problem with customers of the written word is that whereas most would not think twice about hiring a trained electrician to wire their power shower, when it comes to English, the fact that customers have spoken and written the language since childhood makes them think that they are automatically experts, which at one level, of course, they are.

The logic of meeting customers' needs means that if customers insist on arcane formality, convoluted artificiality or bizarre circumlocution, then the role of the proof-reader is to ensure that this is what they get. An extreme example of such eccentricity came to my attention recently when proofing a joint authorship agreement drawn up by a solicitor. This document was 10 pages of closely typed text, utterly devoid of punctuation. When I queried this, m'learned friend said that the agreement was unpunctuated "in order to eliminate ambiguity". This is a legal usage of a word I am not familiar with - "eliminate" in the sense of "create vast amounts of"!

However, as the customer is always right. This particular customer had a unique view of English and therefore his view that "punctuation creates ambiguity" was "right" simply because he was the customer.

The satirical magazine Private Eye utilises a large number of in-jokes and constructions that must be baffling to the new reader. One usage frequently employed is when describing the size of a bribe or a fat-cat's bonus, as in "a sum not unadjacent to pound;75,000". At first sight this appears not only to be a brazen and bizarre double-negative, but also an "incorrect" use of "adjacent". However, to regular readers, if "not unadjacent" were to be "corrected" to say, "close to", not only would the humour be lost, but also the combined overtones of disapproval and inspired guesswork implicit in the construction.

The new Oxford English Dictionary has recently poured gasoline onto the flames of many of these issues (and gained itself a load of free publicity in the doing) by pronouncing from the top of its ivory spire that it is now permissible to split infinitives. This edict comes a mere 72 years after Henry Fowler said everything sensible there is to say on the subject.

The quality of written English in the public domain is important, but all too often the striking of entrenched attitudes on one side or the other is (to borrow a Fowler phrase) "to show oneself ignorant of the genius of the language".

Terry Hyde is flexible learning editor at Stevenson College, Edinburgh. He writes here in a personal capacity.

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