Can Editors Keep Up With Technology?


by - July 5th, 2010


An editorial clarification last week at The New York Times and the reaction to it has made me wonder if it’s possible for editors to keep up with how quickly language is changing in the face of technological development.

I had suggested that outside of ornithological contexts, “tweet” should still be treated as colloquial rather than as standard English. It can be used for special effect, or in places where a colloquial tone is appropriate, but should not be used routinely in straight news articles.

The reaction to the Times‘s editorial statement – a decision which would ordinarily have come under no scrutiny whatsoever – was intense and harsh. People sneered at the idea of the so-called ‘guardians of the English language’ for daring to pronounce on what should or should not be considered ‘standard’ English.

I can see both sides of this argument. As a writer and reader, I hate the idea that some kind of arbitrary standard should limit the way people can express themselves (though to be fair, I don’t think whether or not The New York Times uses the word ‘tweet’ is of that much importance). On the other hand, as an editor, standardised decisions like this make my job much easier.

Yahoo News, swiftly becoming a trusted source of news as well as an aggregator, has recently released a stylebook in the vein of the much celebrated (and much despised) Associated Press stylebook. They are selling printed versions of it, but it also exists as a website for free. But I have to wonder, is there really a need for a resource like this when we have Google? The Yahoo stylebook has a fairly comprehensive FAQ, including questions about standard spelling and SEO. SEO stands for ‘search engine optimisation’. SEO is basically the umbrella term for all the tricks a web developer uses for getting their website to the top of Google search results. A part of this is ensuring that the standard spelling used for a word throughout a website – particularly if it’s a key word – is the spelling most likely to be used by people searching on Google.

This raises an interesting question. If Google is (among many other things) a global and aggregated digest of common spelling and usage, then is a stylebook even necessary anymore? Google has already become my go-to source for standard spelling, hyphenation or spacing of a word that doesn’t appear in the dictionary. ‘How many pages are on Google?’ is often my first question when a fellow editor asks me for the standard way of writing something. As books are increasingly digitised and searchable, is it more important to be visible – or technically correct? Is there, in fact, even such a thing as ‘technically correct’?

Language is a tricky thing. There is a balance between authority and democracy to be struck, and the internet is tipping that balance toward democracy. It’s something that I have mixed feelings about. On the one hand, the strength of the English language is its fluidity – it can change and adapt to the changes and adaptations of its speakers. On the other hand, the pedant in me screams at the idea that someone can start using ‘literally’ just to emphasise their point. But what if Google says it’s OK? Does that make it right? What do you think?


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Joel Naoum (113 Posts)

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12 Responses to “Can Editors Keep Up With Technology?”

  1. Sam Says:

    To say that the publishing/newspaper industry is kicking and screaming in resistance to technological change – well that’s an understatement. So it is really not much of a surprise that the New York Times doesn’t want to acknowledge the word ‘tweet’. There is a difference between using a word incorrectly (like ‘literally’) and a new use for a word (like ‘tweet’). You can’t just ignore new usages that emerge from new technology.

  2. Joel Blacklock Says:

    Very good point. But I guess the two things come from the same place. If enough of the right people start using a new word, it becomes ‘standard’. If enough people start using an existing word in a different way then a once-incorrect usage becomes correct. At what point does that happen? And who gets to decide?

  3. Sam Says:

    To say that the publishing/newspaper industry is kicking and screaming in resistance to technological change – well that’s an understatement. So it is really not much of a surprise that the New York Times doesn’t want to acknowledge the word ‘tweet’. There is a difference between using a word incorrectly (like ‘literally’) and a new use for a word (like ‘tweet’). You can’t just ignore new usages that emerge from new technology.

  4. Joel Blacklock Says:

    Very good point. But I guess the two things come from the same place. If enough of the right people start using a new word, it becomes ‘standard’. If enough people start using an existing word in a different way then a once-incorrect usage becomes correct. At what point does that happen? And who gets to decide?

  5. John Says:

    Quote
    — —
    If enough people start using an existing word in a different way then a once-incorrect usage becomes correct. At what point does that happen? And who gets to decide?
    — —

    I’d keep deliberate new uses (tweet) distinct from aggregating mistakes (literally etc.). Numbers leading to consensus makes good sense for words like tweet: there’s a large body of people using it consciously, and the new meaning isn’t eroding the old (even as it surpasses it in popularity).

    Snowballing mistakes should be fought on all fronts–they being no benefit to the writer or the reader. ‘Literally’ is a good example. English is already enough of a rabbit warren without extra disjunctions created by people who confused ‘trolled’ for ‘trawled’ en masse ca. 2008.

  6. Joel Blacklock Says:

    I agree in principle, but in practice words subtly shift meaning all the time. Who are we to decide one kind of new usage is OK (new uses) but other kinds (aggregating mistakes) are wrong? Editing is ultimately about clarity. At a certain point, if enough people are using a word incorrectly, it becomes just as clear to use a word incorrectly as it is to use it correctly… But, you know, that makes me pretty frustrated!

  7. John Says:

    Quote
    — —
    If enough people start using an existing word in a different way then a once-incorrect usage becomes correct. At what point does that happen? And who gets to decide?
    — —

    I’d keep deliberate new uses (tweet) distinct from aggregating mistakes (literally etc.). Numbers leading to consensus makes good sense for words like tweet: there’s a large body of people using it consciously, and the new meaning isn’t eroding the old (even as it surpasses it in popularity).

    Snowballing mistakes should be fought on all fronts–they being no benefit to the writer or the reader. ‘Literally’ is a good example. English is already enough of a rabbit warren without extra disjunctions created by people who confused ‘trolled’ for ‘trawled’ en masse ca. 2008.

  8. Joel Blacklock Says:

    I agree in principle, but in practice words subtly shift meaning all the time. Who are we to decide one kind of new usage is OK (new uses) but other kinds (aggregating mistakes) are wrong? Editing is ultimately about clarity. At a certain point, if enough people are using a word incorrectly, it becomes just as clear to use a word incorrectly as it is to use it correctly… But, you know, that makes me pretty frustrated!

  9. kypt Says:

    Perhaps a case of language being ‘fit to purpose’. Sometimes you want the correct/most accurate way to concisely express something. Sometimes you cater your delivery to a specific audience. Sometimes these may not be the same thing. Different frogs, different ponds, and all that.

  10. kypt Says:

    Perhaps a case of language being ‘fit to purpose’. Sometimes you want the correct/most accurate way to concisely express something. Sometimes you cater your delivery to a specific audience. Sometimes these may not be the same thing. Different frogs, different ponds, and all that.

  11. adam Says:

    does this mean that we’re staring down the barrel of the word “than” being replaced by a new alternative meaning of the word “then”? the amount of times I see people writing “more then” and “less then” is steadily increasing.

    I take your point though – i love a good new word or a great story about mutated usage, but sometimes the editor hat makes it hard to watch it as it happens.

  12. adam Says:

    does this mean that we’re staring down the barrel of the word “than” being replaced by a new alternative meaning of the word “then”? the amount of times I see people writing “more then” and “less then” is steadily increasing.

    I take your point though – i love a good new word or a great story about mutated usage, but sometimes the editor hat makes it hard to watch it as it happens.