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Lecture | Sociolinguistics Series

Why we need to investigate the work of copy editors

Friday 10 December 2021
LUCL Sociolinguistics Series 2022/2023
Online | see link below


Until recently, the work of copy editors has hardly been a subject of attention for sociolinguists. When mentioned at all, it has been considered primarily anecdotally and described as an effort to ensure uniformity in language use by suppressing variation, and, enact the “ideology of language standardization” (Milroy & Milroy, 2012, p. 68). In a rare, yet often-invoked account of copy-editing, Deborah Cameron describes it as a process of hyperstandardizing texts and removing variation from the few marginal grammatical contexts where it exists (2012, pp. 47, 53). We argue that there is far more to be said about copy editors who engage not only in ensuring uniformity in written language, but rather mediate text production in a number of ways. Based on a large-scale survey we conducted among 288 copy editors and proofreaders across the English-speaking world, we present results that demonstrate that this group of language professionals varies in how they approach editing academic texts. This variation is not random. Whereas traditional sociolinguistic variables of age and language variety shed some light on the differences we found, others, such as language-internal constraints and values related to the copy-editing process, may play a relevant role as well. Our research endeavour resonates with the reorientation towards studying prescriptivism as a relevant sociolinguistic factor, and particularly with those who have recently directed their gaze towards the work done by those at the “coal-face of standardization” (McArthur, 2001, p. 4), such as Owen (2020) and Pillière (2020). Finally, we urge sociolinguists to investigate further how norms are understood and implemented by different groups of gatekeepers. Studies like ours will help us understand the processes which de facto shape and direct the development of standard written English.

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