In the summer of 2007, I was working with a group of biologists for the Fish and Wild Service of the Department of Interior in a class called Critical Writing, Critical Thinking. It’s a grueling, week long session of reading, writing, thinking, and reviewing, during which we all get frustrated more than once. And by the time we leave, we’re all exhausted and exhilarated.
And on this one afternoon in July, when the frustration was running pretty high, and the exhaustion was just around the corner, and we couldn’t even glimpse the exhilaration, one of us broke. A certain biologist skipped his pen across the table, tossed himself back into his chair, threw his arms up, and surrendered.
To be fair, the morning session on sentence structure had been rough, involving a fairly intense battle between the phrase camp and the clause camp. Anyone who has worked for the government, or tried to decipher IRS publications, will understand what it must have been like to rally those troops. So when the afternoon lesson on causal argumentation broke down precisely because of a sentence structure issue, a minor skirmish was to be expected.
So it was that a very well respected, long term employee of the federal government in all seriousness albeit with candor and vehemence exclaimed, “Why can’t we just hire some grammar experts in Washington to clean up this crap and let us do our jobs?” (I’m paraphrasing.) And the revolutionary shot was fired. Grumbles began throughout the room, and the instructor team began furtively glancing first at one another and then at the exits.
As a composition instructor, an English PhD, and a contractor for the federal government, you might expect me to jump on an opportunity like that. Perhaps if I were a little more mercenary, I might have said something like, “Pay me an excellent salary, and I’ll be happy to clean up your crap.” Except I won’t. Nor will I argue would any other English expert, language lady, or grammar guru (despite the foregoing penchant for alliteration, I personally prefer GQ—Grammar Queen).
It’s not just that the idea of copy editing bores me to tears. There are plenty of people that do it, and that love what they do. It’s simply the fact that a copy editor cannot clean up faulty grammar. Take the following example:
The authority to list a “species” as endangered or threatened is thus not restricted to species as recognized in formal taxonomic terms but extends to subspecies and for vertebrate taxa to distinct population segments (DPS’s).
If you’re not a biologist, and I definitely am not, you’re probably going—what does that mean? Sorry, but I don’t really know. What I do know is that it might need a comma around the words “for vertebrate taxa.”
You see, that phrase is an element that might be restrictive or non-restrictive, also called essential or non-essential. The answer hinges around the question are vertebrate taxa the ONLY subspecies to have DPS’s? If so, the phrase requires commas, because DPS necessarily refers to vertebrate taxa.
Do you see what I mean? Only a biologist would understand that. But it’s a biologists’ job to make that clear to his readers. And the commas make that clear, whether you’re a biologist or not.
So who is going to be the next grammar guru? You. Because you are the only person with the knowledge, expertise, and PASSION to care enough about your subject matter to express it clearly, concisely, and correctly. And in order to do that, you have to know the difference between a restrictive and a non-restrictive element. You have to understand how to punctuate coordinating conjunctions properly. You need to know when to use a semicolon and when to use a hyphen. In other words, you have to become the grammar expert.
There’s no grammar guru that can “clean up your crap.” But if you care enough about your profession, you’ll become the expert so that you can advocate for your own message effectively.