Reader Response Journal

Pluralizing English? Variation in High-Stakes Academic Texts and Challenges of Copyediting by Joel Heng Hartse and Ryuko Kubota

This article looks at the conflict between the move towards greater acceptance of variety in English (World Englishes, ELF, translanguaging, etc.) and the requirements for error-free standard language in academic publishing. The authors use their collaboration on Demystifying Career Paths after Graduate School, a book edited by Kubota, a non-native speaker, and copyedited by Hartse, a native speaker, to look at the tensions between their commitment to pluralization in theory and their actual editing practice, even though they made retaining non-native speaker authors’ voices a deliberate and explicit goal. To frame their discussion of their own work, they outline four approaches to variation in written texts by non-native speakers, the traditional error-based approach, the World Englishes approach, the translingual approach and the written English as a lingua franca approach. The latter three are more inclusive and accepting of variation, but are difficult to reconcile with publishers’ expectations. (Interestingly, a corpus of Written English as a Lingua Franca in Academic settings (WrELFA) was developed by the University of Helsinki and should provide more data for future explorations on non-native speakers’ high-stakes writing.) They explore the ambiguity of most academic journals’ standards in terms of language, and note TESOL Quarterly and the Journal of English as a Lingua Franca as two exceptions that explicitly welcome writers with different norms. Next, they explore the “text history” of their own editing process, looking at specific changes and the reasons they made them while editing their book. Specifically they address changing individual words (would, getting tenure), resolving sentence-level ambiguity, and changing the book’s title to conform to native speaker norms. They acknowledge the role that native speaker intuition played in these changes, despite their desire to edit as lightly as possible. They end the piece with suggestions for more progress towards the recognition of variation by publishers and recommend that second language writing researchers communicate their findings to those in gate keeping positions at publication. They suggest several potential research questions and call on everyone involved in the publication process to balance intelligibility with non-native speakers’ voices, encouraging copyeditors in particular to ask “why do I want this change to be made?” (p. 81) for every change.

I read this article because, as co-editor of the Social Responsibility Interest Section newsletter for TESOL, I’m editing non-native speakers’ writing for publication for the first time, and many of the questions that Hartse asked himself are ones I’ve been wondering about. Second language writing has never been a major area of exploration for me, and most of the students I’ve taught have been at a much lower proficiency level, so this is my first time really thinking about how to give effective feedback to really high level non native speaker writers, and where the line between errors, variation and style is. One thing I was struck by was how much “native speaker intuition” was referred to, which I’m sure is the case in my own editing as well. I’m definitely going to start being more critical of the way I approach my editing work, and distinguishing between what’s actually impeding communication or making the ideas unclear, versus what’s just my own personal preference in terms of style or language use. It’s definitely true that there is a tension between our ideals as advocates of inclusive approaches and the expectations of readers and publishers, but I think TESOL newsletters are exactly the type of publication best positioned to actually incorporate new approaches.

Hartse, J. H. & Kubota, R. (2014). Pluralizing English? Variation in high-stakes academic writing and challenges of copyediting. Journal of Second Language Writing, 24, 71-82.

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