Editing and anti-editing

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At the end of a recent post ("Opening up the Google-China mailbag", 1/14/2010), James Fallows adds this "language note":

Usually when quoting reader responses, I leave them just as they are, warts and all. But if I am sure that the note is from a non-native speaker of English, I will sometimes correct small mistakes of spelling, grammar, or usage — "have" for "has," "hypocracy" for "hypocrisy," — that would unduly draw attention to themselves. In this note I made three or four of these tiny copy clean-ups while leaving the rest of the phrasing and word choice unchanged. Writing in a second or third language is one of the harder intellectual challenges that exist. (Hey, writing in a first language is not always that easy!) Even though English has a larger share of non-native speakers and writers than any other language and therefore a greater tolerance for "diversity," I think it's justified to remove minor brambles from the writer's path.

I admit that this practice leaves a logical gray zone. If somebody seems to be a native speaker who just writes sloppily, I don't bother trying to save that person from himself. But if I quickly get the sense that this is not a native speaker — and within a sentence or two I think I can always tell — I may do a little cleanup. The gray zone is when the command of grammar is shaky enough to raise questions, but not unusual enough to suggest that the writer grew up with a different language and therefore deserves affirmative-action help. This is all part of the endless saga of language being one of the most absorbing aspects of dealing with different cultures.

This is at the other end of the spectrum from the use of "eye dialect" to undermine the credibility of a quotation, or at least to put the author in his or her social place.

[As someone who frequently commits typos and brainos in writing, I silently correct such errors in comments when I notice them, regardless of the author's presumed linguistic history.]


  1. language hat said,

    January 16, 2010 @ 10:56 am

    I like Fallows' approach. Kindness is a good thing.

  2. Mark P said,

    January 16, 2010 @ 11:54 am

    I think Fallow's approach is especially thoughtful for the internet, since for the most part blog commenting blends the immediacy and sloppiness of spoken language with the sometimes unfortunate permanency of written language. Most of us (and by that I mean "I") seldom take the time to write out and seriously ponder grammar, spelling or usage in a blog comment.

  3. Bob Ladd said,

    January 16, 2010 @ 12:16 pm

    This just goes to show – once again – that a lot of what is communicated in language is not propositional content but indexical information about the speaker/writer. Fallows refers, accurately if metaphorically, to the "warts" in the writing, and bases his editing policy on the fact that there are two distinct kinds of reasons for the warts: either the writer is a foreign user of English, or the writer is uneducated/unthinking/misguided/whatever. His editing policy implicitly says that the first reason is irrelevant to the writer's purpose in writing, whereas the second one is relevant; putting it somewhat differently, the first reason is somehow not the writer's fault but the second one is.

    Whatever the merits of his policy (I'm inclined to agree with language hat), it's certainly true that a judgement of foreignness based on indexical cues mitigates or substantially modifies other reactions in a lot of everyday language use. Once last summer I asked a traffic warden about the current state of long-term but constantly-changing construction-related roadblocks in the centre of Edinburgh, only to be given directions how to get from where I was to the centre of town – my American accent was enough to make the traffic warden assume I didn't know my way around and, in effect, to answer a question I hadn't asked. And when I lived in Germany and was frequently taken for a native speaker, I deliberately adopted a policy, when I had to deal with officials and bureaucrats, of putting on a slight English accent at the beginning of the transaction; that way, if I had to ask a stupid question later on, the person I was talking to would know why. It was always easier to be taken as a foreigner who spoke good German rather than as a German who was stupid or uncooperative or just weird.

  4. Chris said,

    January 16, 2010 @ 12:45 pm

    If I'm not in a hurry, I routinely correct small typos in posts I'm quoting (adn>and, for instance), even from people I know and native English speakers.* The ones I choose to fix are the ones that intuition tells me are simple typing mistakes. I figure most people would not like their typos waved in their face when I respond. Word choice, though, people are on their own.

    *And partly because I'm a nitpicker about spelling, of course. Editing is part of what I do professionally, and the reflex is hard to kill.

  5. Coby Lubliner said,

    January 16, 2010 @ 12:48 pm

    I find it hard to believe that the spelling of hypocrisy as hypocracy betrays a "non-native speaker of English." As far as I know, in no other language do the cognates of hypocrisy and (say) democracy rhyme. Why would Fallows use "non-native speaker of English" (I happen to be one) to describe someone with poor grammar or spelling?

  6. Odd Thomas said,

    January 16, 2010 @ 1:22 pm

    When answering questions on ESL forums, I find that not correcting incidental grammar or spelling errors in the question itself maintains cordiality and helps preserve the dignity of the poster.

  7. Mongoose said,

    January 16, 2010 @ 1:48 pm

    I do this at work, and indeed I'm specifically asked to do it. I am a clerical officer working in an English university, and we have several members of staff who are non-native speakers; one of my tasks is to proofread people's academic journal articles. There is, in particular, one native French speaker who makes some really subtle and interesting errors in English (my favourite being "over or below" rather than "over or under" or "above and below" – it really isn't at all obvious why no native speaker would ever write this), and he relies on me heavily to correct his English for him.

    The first time I did this, he was rather anxious about how I would do it, as he had previously had a colleague "correct" one of his articles so heavily that all traces of his original style had been lost. The article had ended up reading as though the colleague had written it. He wanted some reassurance that I wouldn't do this, and I said, "Don't worry. I am also a translator. That means I'm used to doing my best to be faithful to the original style. I will correct your article so that it reads as though you spoke perfect English, not as though I knew all about [the subject of the article]."

    It seems I succeeded, because he keeps coming back for more corrections. But I think the parallel with translation may be worth sharing here.

  8. Erik said,

    January 16, 2010 @ 1:49 pm

    "eye dialect" link is not working for me. I think the search term got lost.

    Also related, of course, is the use of [sic] for obvious errors when reprinting third party work.

    I tend to read letters to the editor columns. A sure sign, in my mind at least!, of bad publication is a printed letter to the editor in which the editors bothered to insert a [sic] into the text to correct an obvious error, but could not be bothered to respond to substantive issues of fact raised in the letter, thus, to me, conceding that the reader's letter is correct, and that the paper was incorrect on the substantive issues raised.

  9. Coby Lubliner said,

    January 16, 2010 @ 3:16 pm

    I posted my earlier comment hurriedly without having read Fallows' second paragraph. But if he thinks that "within a sentence or two… [he] can always tell" that "this is not a native speaker" then it seems to me, on the basis of the examples he cites, that he is (to put it gently) unduly overconfident. As I said before, "hypocracy" is far more likely to come from a native speaker, and as regards "have" for "has," would he judge Britons who routinely write "the government have" or "the team have" to be non-native? (He spent some time at Oxford, so he ought to know.)

    Fallows' attitude smacks of arrogant condescension. "Remove minor brambles…" Give me a break!

  10. James Fallows said,

    January 16, 2010 @ 4:25 pm

    Heard about the discussion here; thanks for your attention.

    To Cory Lubliner: Give me a break, right back at you! If the only reason I thought a comment came from a non-native speaker had been "hypocracy," you might be right in thinking I was jumping to conclusions. Here is a sample original sentence from the same message in which I fixed "hypocracy." See if you can detect the subtle clue that let me know that I was hearing from a non-native speaker:

    "Calling the Dalai Lama a wolf in sheep's skin, lecturing Obama that as a black man he should distance himself from the Tibetan spiritual leader because he represents slavery, and letting a sub-cabinet level official wagging a finger in front of the American president during a Copenhagen meeting, etc. "

    I changed one word in that sentence, since I thought that leaving it in would be equivalent to "eye dialect" and would needlessly undermine a person whose command of English was highly expert but at the same time non-native. If I had used that illustration (in place of hypocracy / have-has) in the same post that included the quote, it would have had the inadvertent undermining effect. So agree or disagree with the policy, but please give me a minute's credit for not judging on the basis of simple misspelling.

  11. John Cowan said,

    January 16, 2010 @ 4:32 pm

    Coby, I think you are misunderstanding Fallows. He is saying that if he detects a non-native speaker (and of course he can't always), then he will silently correct an error such as hypocracy. This is not the same as saying that hypocracy is in itself a sign of a non-native speaker, which would be the fallacy of affirming the consequent.

    But you are quite right to say that he can't possibly tell "within a sentence or two" whether someone is non-native; you'd have to read an awful lot of Joseph Conrad sentences before you found that out from internal evidence alone! As is well known, there are plenty of non-native contributors here, but if they didn't say so, many of them would be absolutely impossible for anyone to spot.

  12. Brett said,

    January 16, 2010 @ 5:01 pm

    @ John Cowan — I think you're wrong about Conrad. When I first read Heart of Darkness, I was frequently struck by the author's odd constructions. The way he broke paragraphs, his choice of words, and his grammatical constructions were sometimes completely unfamiliar to me—unlike anything else I had seen in nineteenth- or twentieth-century English prose. Had I been presented with merely a few pages of his work, rather than an entire classic novel, I think I probably would have concluded that English was not his native tongue. Because of his standing as one of the greatest novelists in the English language, I never considered the possibility that he actually hadn't learned to speak it until he was an adult. Instead, I concluded that the idiosyncrasies of Conrad's writing were intentional (which some of them were; for example, his refusal to ever use the words "Belgium," "Belgian," or "Brussels," even though he referred to other countries—Britain, France, Germany—normally).

    Certainly, it is not always possible to recognize a non-native speaker's writing, but, especially given a substantial sample, it may be easier than you think.

  13. William Lockwood said,

    January 16, 2010 @ 7:19 pm

    This may be taken simply as a compliment to the commenters here who are non-native English speakers, but I agree wholeheartedly with John Cowan: very little of the English I've seen in LL comments strikes me as even the least bit strange. Even as a native speaker, I often wish I could be as eloquent as many here seem to be.

  14. Ben said,

    January 16, 2010 @ 7:22 pm

    One of my office mates in grad school would append a thoughtful note on poorly written student papers: "I can see that you aren't a native speaker of English. If you need help with your writing, please go to the Writing Center [or whatever]." Except he would write this note only on papers that he knew, independently, had been written by native speakers of English.

  15. peter said,

    January 16, 2010 @ 8:13 pm

    In support of Brett, and contrary to John Cowan, Joseph Conrad's English prose style is so distinctive and unusual that when reading his complete works as a teenager, I found myself adopting his style in my own writing.

    The real test, of course, would be the works of William Faulkner. Within a sentence or two, I think many English-speaking readers would conclude that here was a non-native speaker of English.

  16. Coby Lubliner said,

    January 16, 2010 @ 9:03 pm

    James Fallows: I would judge the ungrammatical "wagging" (if that is your "subtle clue") to be a result of hasty typing (as I would your misspelling of my name), since it's inconsistent with the otherwise quite idiomatic text.

  17. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    January 16, 2010 @ 9:09 pm

    MYL: I silently correct such errors in comments when I notice them, regardless of the author's presumed linguistic history

    Exactly. I think the distinction between "native" and "non-native" writers is far more subtle and complex than Fallows makes it appear, especially for 21st century English.

    For example, I fail to see how "native" writers do not "deserve affirmative-action help". Is writing in a non-native dialect less difficult than in a non-native language? It's not that clear.

    How about the following advocatus-diaboli line of thinking: (1) "Shaky grammar natives" have writing problems due to less-than-perfect education stemming from lacking social privilege. Conclusion: Affirmative action well deserved. (2) "Minor bramble non-natives" enjoy sufficient social privilege to be able to afford the caprice of learning a foreign language, and they get to learn standard grammar right from the very start. And they still can't get their grammar right. Conclusion: No cookie.

    (This is of course with my tongue firmly in my cheek, just to make things 100% clear.)

    An interesting complication is that, at least for English as a Foreign Language pronunciation (my field), native speakers of English seem to be more tolerant of non-native pronunciations than expert non-native judges. There's even a whole book-sized project on this. A similar effect, I believe, is to be found for grammar. (At sufficiently advanced levels, that is.)

    BTW, hypocracy for hypocrisy is so blatantly "native" that you really have to doubt Fallows' ability to tell the difference. But that's a whole different can of worms. (Or a can of totally different worms.)

  18. Coby Lubliner said,

    January 16, 2010 @ 9:25 pm

    As a non-native English-speaker myself, I would like to add that, when it comes to writing in a standard language, the whole "native speaker" business needs to be rethought. I remember, for example, that when I lived in France in 1960, the highest scores in French on the baccalauréat exams were obtained by Alsatians and Corsicans, who at that time still spoke (for the most part) their non-French dialects, but who had been thoroughly schooled in standard French, with relatively little interference from colloquial French.

  19. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    January 16, 2010 @ 9:27 pm

    Max Beerbohm's famous parody of Conrad, 'The Feast', begins 'The hut in which slept the white man…', so clearly his grammatical idiosyncracies were recognised in his time.

  20. Garrett Wollman said,

    January 17, 2010 @ 12:01 am

    @Coby Lubliner: I obviously can't speak for James Fallows, but I do know that it took me several months of reading your comments here to notice that there is no 'r' in your given name. In my (native-speaker) normal sight-reading experience, a word of that shape is far more likely to be "Cory". (The evidence bears that out: "Coby" peaked in popularity around 2003, at about 95 per million children born in the U.S.; "Cory" peaked in the early 1980s at about 1150 per million. [Data from babynamewizard.com.])

  21. Maria said,

    January 17, 2010 @ 2:38 am

    I think my "subtle clue" would have been the wolf in sheep's skin. I'm used to natives saying "wolf in sheep's clothing". But then again, I *am* a nonnative speaker, so what do I know.

    I should point out, though, that I don't think JF is saying that he can identify every nonnative contributor. What he's saying is that certain turns of phrase, or certain mistakes, suggest that the author is writing in a second language, and in that case he edits some of the more obvious errors. I'm pretty sure that some common mistakes made by natives are avoided by ESL speakers/writers, and vice versa. I can't for the life of me get an intuitive feel for prepositions, for instance, but I would never write its for it's.

  22. Maria said,

    January 17, 2010 @ 2:43 am

    Oh, I reread the article and he does say that he can always tell. Oh well.

  23. Amy Stoller said,

    January 17, 2010 @ 10:49 am

    There may be a logical grey zone, but the issue I see is one of ethics and grace. I don't see the difference between condescending to NNS and condescending to NS, on the basis of the judgment you have made of their literacy. The clear choices are:

    A. correct all errors silently;

    B. apply [sic] consistently;

    C. leave the writer's text as written, and stop calling minor errors of orthography "warts."

    I can be as snobbish as anyone, probably more so (to my shame be it spoken), but either someone's content is important, or it is not. Playing games with their style is none of your business, unless your mutually agreed relationship with them is that of editor; or you are a teacher – in which case a private conference is not a bad idea, depending on how you handle it. Ben's office mate had a great idea – except for his cruel use of it. Sarcasm like that leaves scars.

    I don't like the grocer's apostrophe, I don't like poor spelling, and boy do I hate tpyos – but if you can't understand what I'm saying, ask me for clarification. Otherwise respond to the message, not the medium. Some of the most creative, best thinkers in the world couldn't spell. If you had a personal letter to you from Einstein, would you send it back to him with the note "Must try harder"?

  24. Patrick Gribben said,

    January 17, 2010 @ 1:16 pm

    A fascinating discussion! Someone should fly out and interview this girl http://english-jack.blogspot.com/2009/11/girl-13-gets-perfect-toefl-score.html.

  25. A.C. said,

    January 17, 2010 @ 2:46 pm

    Isn't it pretty much the same thing as with dialects? Yes it's bad to write like that if you're trying to project an image of an upper-class intellectual (or give advice on style and usage) but if that's not your goal, then non-standard accent or usage pattern may in fact enhance your credibility. I bet that a foreign language teacher who has a heavy accent, for example, or someone with an obvious drawl commenting on how things are in Texas, would be perceived as more knowledgeable on either topic than someone speaking like a BBC newscaster.

    Occasional typos like "hypocracy" or "epistemiology" are just that, – typos everyone does. Something I personally would mind in a newspaper, or even in a blog post, but in a comment? Give me a break. They aren't signs of stupidity or ignorance, just of human fallibility. (Then again, one of my friends speaks five languages with various degrees of fluency, but her semi-literate scrawls when she tries to write Russian annoy me to no end, in part because she speaks Russian perfectly. Then again, she never studied it formally… )

    Sorry for any unintentionally foreign English. :)

  26. Nathan Myers said,

    January 17, 2010 @ 8:49 pm

    I understood what Fallows meant, and I find his policy entirely commendable. If he can't tell that a writer is using a second language, then most likely neither can his readers, and they will find nothing to distract them from the content. Someone writing "hypocracy" might have grown up in the U.S., but in any case probably can't be thought literate in English, and would benefit from any help offered.

  27. andrew c said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 4:02 am

    late to the match as usual, but…

    On the occasion of Spike Milligan's death, I wrote a letter to The Australian newspaper as follows "Farewell to Spike Milligna, the well known typing error." This was of course corrected by the letters editor. Happily they printed my suitably outraged letter pointing that 'Milligna' was not only the whole point of the joke, it was actually Milligan,s which I was quoting in memorium.

    Sometimes just can't win.

  28. andrew c said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 4:04 am

    sigh…sometimes editors just can't win. Nor commenters either.

  29. Forrest said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 7:23 pm

    I type teh for the occasionally – often enough to notice it. My fingers just seem to hit their intended targets in the wrong order. I'm guessing this, along with the rest of my writing, puts my firmly in the idiot category.

  30. Kragen Javier Sitaker said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 10:45 pm

    I do this too when quoting people's comments on, say, Reddit or in email. I always worry they'll notice and get offended, or that someone else will notice the discrepancy and thus have their attention called to an error they might otherwise have overlooked.

  31. dwmacg said,

    January 19, 2010 @ 3:46 pm


    To be fair, he says he thinks he can always tell; he's leaving himself some wiggle room. And as a former ESL teacher, I know where he's coming from–there are certain errors that tend to mark even the best writers as non-native, such as to use a gerund when an infinitive is called for (or vice-versa).

  32. Diana said,

    January 21, 2010 @ 3:27 pm

    To Amy Stoller, you seem to be a lot more willing to give the benefit of the doubt to the people having their typos and small errors corrected than to the person doing the correcting. I think that clearing away small errors (without commenting on them) is a way of making sure that the content does receive the attention it deserves. It's not condescending. Sparing people the embarrassment of seeing their small, essentially meaningless mistakes displayed is a a type of etiquette.

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