Monthly Archives: February 2019

Linguistic prejudice: time to check our unconscious biases

By Erin CarrieFour yellow balls with faces drawn in black ink: one sad, one happy, one angry and one uneasy

An introduction to linguistic prejudice

We all have preferences when it comes to language – things we like and dislike. There are accents that we find friendly, catchy words that we pick up, and grammatical forms that we consider to be correct. But that means that there are also accents that we find ugly and unattractive, words that we think are silly or offensive, and grammatical forms that we – often quite adamantly – think are just plain wrong.

This is perfectly normal human behaviour. We have a natural tendency to organise our realities in this way, sorting things according to dualities such as good vs bad, right vs wrong, etc. But it does beg the following questions… What are these evaluations of language actually based on? Who decides what is good and bad, or even right and wrong, when it comes to language? And at what point do these preferences become prejudices?

Sociolinguists like myself would argue that there is nothing inherently good, bad or – dare I say – ugly about any aspect of language. These are social meanings that we have attached to language through convention. And it’s perhaps no surprise that the language that we consider to be correct tends to be the language of the elites within our societies.

Within the vastly variable and changing landscape of the English language, there is a tendency to think that dictionaries, grammars, style guides, etc, based on the linguistic norms of the South East of England have the greatest authority and prestige. More often than not, these norms become the standards that editors and proofreaders live and work by, whether explicitly or implicitly.

But what happens when the work being edited or proofread is written by someone using features of regional or second-language varieties of English? Should their writing conform to the aforementioned norms? At what cost? Perhaps it’s time to reflect on the extent to which the profession privileges some voices over others and, in doing so, turns these preferences into prejudices.

The roles of editors and proofreaders

When editing and proofreading, there is inevitably a need to tread the line between (1) suggesting changes that will help the author communicate their message more effectively and (2) ensuring that the style and voice of the author is retained. Editors and proofreaders spend their time working with language and, though they may refer to style guides and implement language ‘rules’ consistently, they are also aware of the fact that language rules are abstract, ambiguous and, quite often, not applicable – there are always exceptions. This makes their roles more difficult to define – they have to use their own judgement and experience when reshaping the author’s message and mediating the relationship between writer and reader.

Every editor and proofreader should reflect on their role and consider the extent to which they are applying rules or asserting preferences, and enforcing so-called ‘standards’ or facilitating diverse voices in communicating their own messages in their own ways. Of course, some degree of conformity to agreed linguistic norms is essential for effective communication but these norms can be redefined and, even, subverted where appropriate. It wouldn’t make sense for everyone’s writing to conform to Standard British English rules when this doesn’t represent the language used by the majority of writers and readers.


Hand turning the pages of a dictionary
Problematic discourse within the editing and proofreading profession

My work on linguistic prejudice to date has focused on speech and, specifically, negative attitudes towards accents and their speakers. One example of the impact of such attitudes is the discrimination experienced by Kasha, shared in this video (Listen to Britain 2017), who moved to the UK from Poland in 1990. The hostile reactions that she has received, based on how she speaks, have made her question her Polish identity and have driven her to seek expert help for reducing and modifying her accent.

Kasha has clearly internalised the social bias against her accent, as she describes her pronunciation as ‘incorrect’ and talks about her accent as a ‘problem’. Disappointingly, her accent reduction coach also engages in this sort of negative discourse, saying that she’ll help Kasha ‘get rid of’ and ‘eradicate’ her accent and will help her to use more ‘elegant’ vowel sounds. Given the differential status of a Standard Southern British English accent and Polish-accented English, it is no surprise that Kasha claims to feel ‘empowered’ after these coaching sessions.

The reason I mention Kasha’s story, although it focuses on spoken rather than written language, is that this is exactly the same type of discourse that we encounter elsewhere and is, in fact, as prevalent within the editing and proofreading profession as in the accent reduction industry. It is not uncommon to come across the following terms in editing and proofreading discourse:

  • ‘standard’ and ‘colloquial’
  • ‘right’ and ‘wrong’
  • ‘good’ and ‘bad’
  • ‘better’ and ‘worse’
  • ‘normal’ and ‘neutral’
  • ‘uncommon’ and ‘unusual’
  • ‘clear’, ‘pristine’ and ‘impeccable’
  • ‘mistakes’, ‘errors’ and ‘problems’
  • ‘correcting’, ‘fixing’, ‘tidying up’ and ‘resolving’.

All of these evaluations of language are based on social, rather than linguistic, norms. Where linguists merely observe differences, society has a tendency to impose hierarchies whereby (1) some linguistic choices are viewed favourably and others aren’t, (2) some are viewed as unmarked and others as marked, and (3) some are considered to be pure and others to be somewhat tainted. All of this implies to writers that they should strive not just to communicate but to communicate perfectly. But, again, who decides what is perfect when it comes to language use? By enforcing the norms of the powerful elite, aren’t we simply perpetuating a system that favours some voices over others?

Erin CarrieErin Carrie is a Senior Lecturer in Linguistics at Manchester Metropolitan University. She works at the interface between Sociolinguistics and the Social Psychology of Language, with a particular interest in language variation and change, language attitudes, and folk perceptions of varieties of English. She promotes consciousness-raising activities around language-based bias, prejudice and discrimination. Follow Erin on Twitter.


Manchester Metropolitan University logo

Posted by Abi Saffrey, SfEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP.

The SfEP mini-conference goes international: Toronto 2018

Over the past few years, local SfEP groups have arranged mini-conferences – day-long CPD and networking events. In November 2018, the Toronto local group hosted its first mini-conference: in this post, two attendees tell us about their experience.

Toronto City Hall

An editor’s homecoming

By Maya Berger

To be an expat is to always feel like a piece of you is far away. To be an expat who has returned home can feel even more fragmenting.

I left Canada for the UK right after I finished my undergraduate degree, and until I moved back to Toronto a year ago all my editorial training, employment, and professional affiliations were British. My links to SfEP have been an anchor for me in a year of big life changes, and the recent SfEP Toronto mini-conference allowed me to bring my British editorial past into my Canadian future. This conference felt like coming full circle for me since the co-organisers, Janelle Bowman, Kelly Lamb and Janet MacMillan, and several of the attendees (including my roommate here in Toronto, Rachel Small) were all people I’d met in the UK through SfEP.

The Toronto mini-conference was an absolute delight. Delegates and speakers came from all over Canada and from the United Kingdom and the United States. There was a fascinating range of backgrounds, career paths, and experience levels among the delegates, and the conference programme delivered impressively on its promise of ‘Something for Everyone’.

Unfamiliar as I was with the Canadian editing community, which of course includes a growing number of SfEP members, the conference introduced me to editor rock stars Virginia Durksen, Jennifer Glossop and Adrienne Montgomerie. Their sessions on grammar, editorauthor relations, and marking up PDFs, respectively, reflected their wealth of expertise and were delivered in a friendly and accessible way. The full roster of speakers and panellists also included fellow Canadians Jeanne McKane, Vanessa Wells and conference co-organiser Janet MacMillan, Americans Erin Brenner and Laura Poole, and Brit Louise Harnby, and it was truly inspiring to learn from their collective wisdom.

Since I didn’t train as an editor in Canada, I was unaware of all the opportunities for professional development that exist across the country for editors and proofreaders. I was pleased to learn that three of the conference’s sponsors, The G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education at Ryerson University, Queen’s University Professional Studies, and Simon Fraser University Continuing Studies, offer courses in editing and publishing-sector skills.
In many ways Toronto is an ideal location for hosting an international conference of editorial professionals. Because Canada’s language and culture have been strongly influenced by both the UK and the US, speakers and delegates from both of those countries, as well as the many Canadians in attendance, found the conference relevant to them. It also didn’t hurt that Toronto itself is a cosmopolitan city with great transport links and lots of attractions.

I have to give huge thanks and kudos to Janelle, Kelly and Janet for organising such a great day. I’m thrilled that Toronto now has its own mini-conference for editors and proofreaders, and there is already talk of making it an annual event. Between this event, the monthly Toronto SfEP group meetings and all my editor friends in the city, Toronto feels like a great place for this editor to call home.

Toronto skyline at nightBeyond editing: finding my people

By Rachel Small

I love working from home. And my idea of a great night involves a good book, a mug of tea and my couch. That said, I’m not completely anti-social, and as a freelance editor I know the importance of community in battling the isolation that tends to come with the job.

In the Society for Editors and Proofreaders, I’ve found ‘my people’.

I was first introduced to the SfEP by my friend and colleague (and often guru) Janet MacMillan, while I was living in the UK. Introvert that I am, I was a bit shy about meeting Janet in the first place, but she immediately welcomed me into her home and reassured me that I would find a supportive network and fantastic professional resources in the SfEP. And she was right.

I started attending the London meetings regularly, and at one such meeting I was pleasantly surprised to hear another Canadian accent. I introduced myself to Maya Berger that evening, and now she’s not only a fellow Toronto-based SfEP enthusiast but also my roommate! Talk about finding my people.

On 7 November 2018, the Toronto group held its first mini-conference, co-organised by Janelle Bowman, Kelly Lamb and Janet MacMillan. While the day’s sessions were top-notch (I feel as though I need a year to integrate all of the tips gleaned from the presenters into my business), what really stood out to me was the camaraderie. Friends, colleagues and strangers alike shared stories and battle scars. We laughed, we groaned, we commiserated.

As I looked around the beautiful venue, I couldn’t quite believe it. I was in the same room as so many of my editing heroes, and treated as a peer. It was humbling and inspiring. I found it equally wonderful meeting so many other people who called themselves introverts. We acknowledged how the intense socialising was outside of our norm but incredibly valuable. The conversations lit a fire under me, and I resolved to get out a little more.

After the full-day conference and subsequent night at the pub, where more lively discussions ensued, I was exhausted – but in the best possible way. Within that exhaustion, I felt rejuvenated. I’d created a memory I could tap into when I needed a boost of energy and motivation. And now, on those days when working from home is just too isolating, I know I have an incredible network of people here in Toronto and also across Canada, the UK, and the US to reach out to. My editing people.

I’m already eagerly anticipating the next conference in Toronto, and I also hope to attend the main SfEP annual conference in Birmingham in 2019.

Tonight, though? I’m curling up with a book.

Cup of tea next to an open book

 

Maya BergerMaya Berger is a copy-editor and proofreader specialising in academic texts, sci fi and fantasy, YA fiction, and romantic and erotic fiction. She is currently a Professional Member of the SfEP. She has degrees in English Literature, Philosophy and Children’s Literature, and she worked as an editorial manager for a higher education specialist publisher in London before going freelance in 2016. Having spent 13 years in the UK, Maya returned to her native Canada in October 2017 and is now a member of the Toronto local SfEP group.

Rachel SmallRachel Small is an editor based in Toronto, Canada, and is an Advanced Professional Member of the SfEP. She works with independent authors, small publishers, and businesses of all shapes and sizes. Her specialties are women’s fiction, memoirs, and material meant to move and inspire audiences. She always loves a good travel story, both on and off the page.

 

Posted by Abi Saffrey, SfEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP.