The British politician Andrea Jenkyns, the Conservative Member of Parliament for Morley and Outwood in West Yorkshire, last week hit headlines for making a ‘middle finger’ gesture at protesters as she entered Downing Street to attend Boris Johnson’s resignation speech.
In response to criticism, Jenkyns explained her action in a statement. Now the statement itself has inspired criticism. This criticism has included someone, apparently anonymously, correcting the statement as a teacher would—taking a red pen to it—and posting it online.
As a professional proofreader, I’m uncomfortable with this. Jenkyns’ behaviour and the content of the statement aside, there are ethical questions to consider when correcting a person’s grammar in such a public way.
Grammar is a sensitive subject. Pupils at school may be used to having their punctuation, grammar and syntax corrected by teachers, but when it comes to adults there’s a danger of it being easily misconstrued. Care needs to be taken so as not to make the writer feel patronised and infantilised.
This is partly because grammar can easily be exploited; not everyone is good at it. For some people, it is their weak spot, just like maths or mental arithmetic may be for others. Yet, unlike other areas of knowledge, grammar is sometimes used as a way for some people to to put others down. It’s used, particularly by armchair or amateur proofreaders, as a way to make themselves feel superior and gain one-upmanship. They see it as a sort of blood sport.
I for one want no part in this pettiness, and no professional would ever approach proofreading that way, which gives the proofreading profession a bad name. In the case of Andrea Jenkyns, her statement was likely produced under pressure and in a hurry. The person correcting her work, too, likely had a particular agenda, which was not to produce the best piece of writing possible, but to subject the writer to online ridicule and humiliation. In that sense, it was not ‘proofreading’.
Is the quality of someone’s grammar reflective of them as a person? Logically this cannot be the case. Proofreading is a very specific way of relating to a person and a professional proofreader will always work in a spirit of generosity and impartiality, taking their client’s particular situation into account.
Moreover, we own our work and hold ourselves accountable. It’s never appropriate to ridicule a person’s grammar, whoever they are. I would not like my writing to be picked apart in this way, and I don’t know anyone who would.
My job is to work with my clients, not against them, and help them produce documents and content that they and their readers will love. As Carol Fisher Saller says in The Subversive Copy Editor, proofreading, like editing, is ‘a gift, not an insult’.