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The Golden Rule is “[p]erhaps the oldest ethical proposition of distinctly universal character.”[1]  In its generic senses, on the other hand, the expression “golden rule”[2] has been used to refer to a rule or precept “[o]f inestimable utility”[3] as well as to “a basic principle of action.”[4]

Revision[5] and proofreading[6] (or correction)[7] are important precepts[8] or principles[9] of writing, although we must balance the obligation to revise and proofread against the need to complete our work:[10]

  • Revision “is part of writing” because we rarely produce an ideal version in our first attempt.[11]
  • Proofreading is a responsibility from which[12] neither the eyes of another person nor the convenience of computers and word processors[13] can excuse us.[14]

But on what rule or principle can we depend for guidance while we revise and proofread in a modern environment of globalization, interlingual communication, and the Internet?  Although grammar[15] provides the “‘framework’ or ‘skeleton’” for the structure of language,[16] its rules are not universal.[17]

Writing reveals something about us, or more specifically, about the manner in which we think.[18]  Revision and proofreading offer opportunities to demonstrate something more — what we think of our readers.[19]

With imagination,[20] we can adapt our routine of revision and proofreading to demonstrate our desire to communicate with readers[21] across languages and borders.[22]  That is a precept or principle of inestimable utility that we can apply while we proofread and revise for global and polylingual audiences.

[1] The quotation is from philosopher Dagobert Runes, who identified versions of the Golden Rule in Confucianism, Buddhism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, Classical Paganism, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, and Sikhism.  Dagobert D. Runes, “Philosophy, Man and Morals,” in Pictorial History of Philosophy (New York: Bramhall House, [1959]), vii.  However, the application of the Golden Rule is not necessarily limited to religion:

Based on the “ethic of reciprocity”, the Golden or Fundamental Rule is to be found in one form or another in most of the established religious traditions.  This is not a rule of revenge, . . . it is entirely about treating other people with the same kind of values and respect with which one would wish to be treated.  Most religions represent, in some form, the classical formulation of the rule. . . . Any of these propositions can be applied in secular terms, there is no requirement for a belief in a God or a commitment to a religious system in order for the Golden Rule to be valid.

Gerald Benedict, The Watkins Dictionary of Religions and Secular Faiths (London: Watkins, 2008), s.v. “Golden Rule” (single quotation marks changed to double; emphasis omitted).

[2] The words “golden” and “rule” sometimes appear together with initial capitals.  In the English language, important religious concepts are often capitalized, although the same terms are not capitalized when they are used generically.  University of Chicago Press, The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th ed.  (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 8.107.

[3] The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary: Complete Text Reproduced Micrographically, 1971 ed. ([New York]: Oxford University Press, 1977), s.v. “golden.”

[4] Shorter Oxford English Dictionary: On Historical Principles, 6th ed., s.v. “golden.”  For example, “it has become a golden rule of legal translation that translators must refrain from correcting any errors and improving the language of authenticated translations having the force of law.”  Susan Šarčević, New Approach to Legal Translation (The Hague: Kluwer Law International, 2000), 118.  And “[t]o aid them in the interpretation of legal texts (‘construction’), judges have available a set of ‘canons,’” one of which is “the ‘golden rule’ (that the court should not construe a statute literally if an absurd result will follow).”  Roy Harris and Christopher Hutton, Definition in Theory and Practice: Language, Lexicography and the Law (London: Continuum, 2007), 160.

[5] In a literary sense, the noun “revision” refers to “the process of amending an earlier version (published or unpublished) of a work; or the newly amended text thus produced”; the corresponding verb is “revise.”  Chris Baldick, comp., The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), s.v. “revision.”

[6] “Proofreading is a special kind of reading: a slow methodical search for misspellings, typographical mistakes, and omitted words or word endings.”  Diana Hacker, Rules for Writers, with contributions by Nancy Sommers, Tom Jehn, Jane Rosenzweig, and Marcy Carbajal Van Horn, 6th ed. (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2009), 30.

[7] Is the noun “correction” a synonym of proofreading?  A definition of the verb “proofread” is “read (text etc.) in proof in order to find and mark errors for correction.”  Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “proof . . . noun.”  The synonymy of “proofreading” and “correction” is supported by the French (corriger, correcteur, correction d’épreuves) and Spanish (corregir, corrector de pruebas, corrección de pruebas) translations of, respectively, “proofread,” “proofreader,” and “proofreading.”  The Oxford-Hachette French Dictionary: French-English; English-French, eds. Marie-Hélène Corréard, Valerie Grundy, Jean-Benoit Ormal-Grenon, and Nicholas Rollin, 4th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), s.v.v. “proofread,” “proofreader,” “proofreading”; Gran diccionario Oxford: Español-inglés; inglés-español, eds. Beatriz Galimberti Jarman, Roy Russell, Nicholas Rollin, and Carol Styles Carvajal, 4th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), s.v.v. “proofread,” “proofreader,” “proofreading.”

[8] The senses of the noun “precept” include “a divine command” as well as “[a]ny of the rules of an art; a direction for the performance of a technical operation.”  Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “precept.”

[9] In one sense, the noun “principle” is a synonym of precept.  Christine A. Lindberg, comp., Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), s.v. “precept.”

[10] The overemphasis of revision and proofreading can prevent us from completing our work:

[E]l celo por la corrección del estilo no debe exagerarse al grado de convertirlo en un obstáculo insuperable para la publicación, caso en el que hecharíamos por tierra todo nuestro trabajo; con razón se ha dicho que lo mejor, es enemigo de lo bueno.

Sergio T. Azúa Reyes, Metodología y técnicas de la investigación jurídica, 6th ed. (México: Porrúa, 2005), 91.

 “Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien” is a quotation that “is often attributed to Voltaire” but “in fact derives from an Italian proverb quoted in his Dictionnaire philosophique (1770 ed.),” namely “Le meglio è l’inimico del bene.”  Elizabeth Knowles, ed., Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, 7th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 834:2.

[11] “Revising is part of writing.  Few writers are so expert that they can produce what they are after on the first try.”  William Strunk Jr., The Elements of Style, rev. E.B. White, 4th ed. (New York: Longman, [2000]), 72.

[12] We can write this sentence with the preposition “from” in the middle (“from which . . .”) or at the end (“that . . . from.”).  An argument for the second alternative is that, in English, it is acceptable, and sometimes more effective, to end a sentence with a preposition.  Strunk, The Elements of Style, 77-78.  Lexicographer Bryan Garner has taken the position that “[t]he spurious rule about not ending sentences with prepositions is a remnant of Latin grammar” that “should never straitjacket English grammar.”  Bryan A. Garner, Garner’s Modern American Usage, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), s.v. “prepositions, ending sentences with prepositions.”

But which version of the sentence is easier to translate into one of the Romance languages?  Which version will facilitate communication with an audience whose first language is not English?  We gain something from merely asking ourselves those questions.

[13] The noun “word processor” refers to “[s]oftware for writing and editing text on a computer.”  Jonathon Keats, Control + Alt + Delete: A Dictionary of Cyberslang (Guilford: Lyons Press, 2007), s.v. “word processor.”  Word processing has limitations, and convenient tools such as spell-checkers and grammar-checkers require “close supervision.”  Keats, Control + Alt + Delete, s.v. “word processor.”  Although grammar checkers can help us identify some problems in the sentences that we write, such computer programs do not possess the level of understanding that is required to identify all errors in grammatical structure.  Hacker, Rules for Writers, 30.  We should also use spell-checkers with caution because they will not identify all typographical errors or misused words.  Hacker, Rules for Writers, 31.

[14] “Never leave your proofreading entirely to others, or to a computer.  Of course, you should ask others to read for you (whenever you can) and use the computer’s spelling checker (always).  But proofread for yourself as well.  Even something as trivial as a typographical error can detract from the message.”  Bryan A. Garner, The Elements of Legal Style, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 219.

[15] In the context of language, linguist David Crystal has identified two senses for the English term “grammar”:

  • “A systematic analysis of the structure of a language.”
  • “A level of structural organization which can be studied independently of phonology and semantics, generally divided into the branches of syntax and morphology.  It is the study of the way in which words, and their component parts, combine to form phrases, clauses, sentences, and other units.”
David Crystal, A Dictionary of Language, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), s.v. “grammar” (internal references omitted).

Grammar is both a science and an art:

[G]rammar is a body of statements of fact — a “science”; but a large portion of it may be viewed as consisting of rules for practice, and as so forming an “art”.  The old-fashioned definition of grammar as “the art of speaking and writing a language correctly” is from the modern point of view in one respect too narrow, because it applies only to a portion of this branch of study; in another respect it is too wide, and was so even from the older point of view, because many questions of “correctness” in language were recognized as outside the province of grammar:  e.g. the use of a word in a wrong sense, or a bad pronunciation or spelling, would not have been called a grammatical mistake.

The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “grammar . . ., sb.” (single quotation marks changed to double).

[16] Crystal noted that “[i]t is difficult to capture the central role played by grammar in the structure of language, other than by using a metaphor such as ‘framework’ or ‘skeleton’.”  David Crystal, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, 3rd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 92.  The history of grammar includes the grouping of words into classes called the “parts of speech,” such as the English classes that we know as nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verbs, prepositions, conjunctions, adverbs, and interjections.  Crystal, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, 95.  The history of the parts of speech suggests parallels to law and legal terminology:

The familiar classification of the parts of speech is based on a description worked out over time by Greek philosophers and grammarians, from whom it was borrowed by Roman grammarians; and still later it provided the framework for the grammatical analysis of most European languages.  But the longevity of Greek grammatical theory is no warranty of fundamental truth.  It was based upon a hodge-podge of criteria — a word’s meaning, its form . . ., its relation to other words, or even mere location. . . . Partly owing to the mixture of criteria, there are difficulties of precise definition . . . which increase when the analysis is applied to languages of different structure from the one it was devised for.

Andrew L. Sihler, New Comparative Grammar of Greek and Latin (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 243 (emphasis omitted).

[17] Crystal explained that the Greek and Latin languages were adopted “as models of linguistic excellence by grammarians of other languages” for three reasons, namely “the unchanging form of [Greek and Latin], the high prestige they held in European education, and the undisputed brilliance of classical literature.”  Crystal, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, 3.  He noted that the prescriptive rules of traditional grammar are not universal — rules vary from one language to another or even within a single language.  Crystal, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, 3.

[18] Garner commented that “[g]ood writing results from good, disciplined thinking.  To work on your writing is to improve your analytical skills.”  Bryan A. Garner, “The Mad, Mad World of Legal Writing,” in Garner on Language and Writing: Selected Essays and Speeches of Bryan A. Garner (Chicago: American Bar Association, 2009), xxvii.  If we do not use care, however, our writing can give readers an unfavorable impression of the manner in which we think:

Careful and correct use of language is a powerful aid to straight thinking, for putting into words precisely what we mean necessitates getting our own minds quite clear on what we mean.  It is with words that we do our reasoning, and writing is the expression of our thinking.  Discipline and training in writing is probably the best training there is in reasoning. . . . [S]lovenly writing reflects slovenly thinking, and obscure writing usually confused thinking.

W.I.B. Beveridge, The Art of Scientific Investigation, [3rd ed.] (New York: Vintage Books, n.d.), 122 (reference omitted).

[19] Proofreading is one way in which we can demonstrate our respect for the reader:

Although proofreading may be dull, it is crucial.  Errors strewn throughout an essay are distracting and annoying.  If the writer doesn’t care about this piece of writing, thinks the reader, why should I?  A carefully proofread essay, however, sends a positive message: It shows that you value your writing and respect your readers.

Hacker, Rules for Writers,31.

[20] This explanation of imagination comesfrom philosophy:

Most directly, the faculty of reviving or especially creating images in the mind’s eye.  But more generally, the ability to create and rehearse possible situations, to combine knowledge in unusual ways, or to invent thought experiments. . . . Imagination is involved in any flexible rehearsal of different approaches to a problem and is wrongly thought of as opposed to reason.

Simon Blackburn, comp., The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), s.v. “imagination” (internal references omitted).

[21] “Consider your reader” is the guideline that has been called “the secret of plain language drafting.”  Michèle M. Asprey, Plain Language for Lawyers, 4th ed. (Sydney: Federation Press, 2010), 90.  In other words, “what we should aim for in our writing is that it can be understood by all those likely to be affected by it.  So we should do our best to make sure that the words we use are used in the way that the reader would use and understand them.”  Asprey, Plain Language for Lawyers, 26.

Author E.B. White used the expression “sympathy for the reader” to describe the belief of Professor William Strunk that writers have a duty to help “the bewildered reader” of English, who “[Strunk] felt . . . was in serious trouble most of the time.”  E.B. White, introduction to Strunk, The Elements of Style, xviii.  The final chapter of The Elements of Style clarified that this sympathy is balanced against the “style [that] is the writer”:

[S]tyle is the writer, and therefore what you are, rather than what you know, will at last determine your style.  If you write, you must believe — in the truth and worth of the scrawl, in the ability of the reader to receive and decode the message.  No one can write decently who is distrustful of the reader’s intelligence, or whose attitude is patronizing.

. . . [Y]our concern for the reader must be pure: you must sympathize with the reader’s plight (most readers are in trouble about half the time) but never seek to know the reader’s wants.  Your whole duty as a writer is to please and satisfy yourself, and the true writer always plays to an audience of one.

Strunk, The Elements of Style, 84.

[22] Does this suggested remedy for the inaccessibility of English apply to other languages?

Probably the most practical method of simplifying your language is to write and speak as if you were talking to a foreigner — to someone who may be just as smart as you are but who has grown up in another language and hasn’t had a chance yet to make himself fully at home in English.

Rudolf Flesch, The Art of Plain Talk (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1946), 180.


Title of page Proofreading & Revision
Address of page
Geographic areas Europe
Languages Spanish; French; English; Greek; Latin
Terms and phrases golden rule; revision; proofreading; globalization; grammar; interlingual; Internet; reader; audience; precept; religion; god; word processor; science; art; good writing
Proverbs, maxims, and canons Golden Rule; le mieux est l'ennemi du bien; le meglio e l'inimico del bene
Metaphors, metonyms, and other figurative expressions framework; skeleton
Publications The Chicago Manual of Style; New Approach to Legal Translation; Definition in Theory and Practice; New Comparative Grammar of Greek and Latin; The Art of Scientific Investigation
Authors Dagobert Runes; Diana Hacker; Sergio Azua Reyes; William Strunk; Bryan Garner; David Crystal; Michele Asprey; E.B. White; Rudolf Flesch
Individuals Voltaire