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How Many Hands Are Required?

Hand_imageI have had an inkling for a while now that as a copy editor, I have been enforcing a rule that might not be justified. This post is part confession, part apology to all the authors whose prose I have changed without good cause, and part contemplation on prescriptivism.

For most of my editing life (including nine years as the co-editor of the Journal of English Linguistics), I have had a thing about on the other hand when it does not follow on the one hand. I have had it in my head for all these years that this is one of those points of usage that irks style guide writers and other copy editors. Therefore, as a responsible copy editor, I must enforce the pairing of on the one hand and on the other hand so that authors’ prose will not be judged as being stylistically maladroit—and so that the journal, for example, will not be seen as having lax editorial standards.

As a result, for years, when I have run across on the other hand, I have scanned backward to see if there is a on the one hand; if not, I have replaced on the other hand with in contrast or something similar. And let me tell you, I have done a lot of replacing of other people’s on the other hand’s. For all my descriptive tendencies as a linguist, I was privileging a prescriptive sense of logic (that if there is a second or other hand, there must be a first hand), in the face of the usage of many highly skilled, eloquent writers.

At some point, as the stranded on the other hand’s piled up, I realized that perhaps I was the outlier on this point of usage. Did I actually know whether other people cared as much as I did and were judging writers for having only one contrasting hand, so to speak? I added the topic to a list of points of usage students could research for an essay in my “History of English” course. The essay assignment asked students to investigate the history of a prescriptive usage rule and compare prescription with actual usage.

One student, Adrienne Chiu, took up the challenge of determining just how shaky the ground was beneath my editorial practice on this issue. The conclusion: pretty shaky. First of all, this rule that I had in my head does not appear in most of the style guides she looked at; and when on the other hand is addressed, it is often to note that in contrast should be used rather than on the other hand if the second statement contradicts the first to the point where they are irreconcilable. Second, the phrase on the other hand, without on the one hand, appears all over academic prose, as well as other written registers, according to the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA). Third, while on the other hand is more colloquial than in contrast in that it occurs much more frequently in speech (according to COCA), on the other hand also appears more frequently than in contrast in academic prose (of course, the two are not fully synonymous, but they are used similarly). In other words, the phrase on the other hand is a more popular choice both in spoken language and in formal written language.

It is not surprising that on the other hand has come to function as a contrastive adverbial not dependent on having a first hand. And its meaning is completely clear to both author and reader. I was the one clinging to the idea that, logically, there had to be two hands rather than only one, even though I know how idioms work and how problematic logic is as a basis for labeling any construction “wrong” in the language.

To all the authors whose prose I changed, I apologize for ridding your prose of all those on the other hand’s that were effectively doing their rhetorical job, often much better than in contrast can. And to any readers who have also been enforcing what turns out to be a fairly mythical prescriptive rule, or who have been subject to the enforcement of the rule, I hope this post will give you a new critical perspective on that practice (a practice that the lexicographer Bryan Garner, it turns out, calls “pure pedantry”). I have long known that the “rule” about not starting a sentence with And (as I did in the last sentence) is a myth perpetuated by English teachers; I had not realized that I, despite my extensive research on the history of prescriptivism, had fallen into enforcing another “rule” that had little basis in style guides or in actual usage.

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