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Lynne Murphy: How American editors are different from British editors

Lynne Murphy: How American editors are different from British editors

April 28, 2018 By Alexandra Martinez Conferences

Given the many differences between American and British English, the way in which American and British editors edit is no doubt different as well. One difference? American editors edit in favor of rules, while British editors edit in favor of voice.

Lynne Murphy is an author and linguist professor at the University of Sussex in Britain. In her recently released book “The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between American and British English,” she talks about the differences and commonalities between the two countries’ usage of English. There’s one chapter dedicated specifically for editors.

“What I think is probably a particularly interesting chapter for editors, I go into the sort of language cultures of the two countries, and how we treat English differently,” Murphy said.

Murphy Book

But what exactly do those differences imply in editing style? She gave the example of how American editors have a written set of rules, while British editors do not.

“All these things that I did as a student here and that I taught as a teacher here, you don’t do them in Britain. You’re just supposed to get them all by osmosis,” Murphy said. “There’s a real difference in the U.S. of people writing down the rules and teaching the rules and making it all really explicit.”

In fact, she said that in sending her book to the two different publishers, the British publisher was more lax and let Murphy’s voice flow, while the American editor made a lot more edits.

“I’ve heard people say this before, that American editors are much, much more rigid than British ones. You know, trying to change my passives into actives, things like that,” Murphy said.

And in reference to the British copy editors, “they’re a bit more about what’s the voice of the author,” Murphy said.

While she did not take every edit that the American editor suggested, she realized that there were real problems of ambiguity that the American editor caught that the British editor did not.

“I ended up rejecting a lot of their changes because I did want it to sound like me, but I also ended up with 10 single-spaced pages of instructions to the British publisher of things to change that the British copy editor hadn’t commented on,” Murphy said.

Murphy was the keynote speaker for the banquet on Friday night at the ACES conference. She kept the room of editors well entertained by showing the differences between the two dialects of English and what is key for editors to know when editing for the other dialect.

“It’s hard to know as an editor how much you don’t know about what’s going on in the other English,” Murphy said. “I think it’s important for editors to be conscious of how complex the differences are. I mean I think most editors will be aware of things like British and American punctuation rules are a bit different.”

Alexandra Martinez is a student at the University of Kansas William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

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