Need some rules to show you when you can break the rules? Looking at corpora may provide examples on how and when to correctly defy the style guide.

Copyediting has had a long history of prescriptivism. However, as technical communication moves towards a more humanistic-based approach, our editing should reflect that approach as well. When attempting to approach a rhetoric-based, descriptivist system of copyediting, corpora can help by providing real-world examples and data, giving editors empirical evidence to base their edits off of.


In order to look at how corpora can help copyeditors, Jordan Smith, an assistant professor of technical communication at the University of North Texas, tested a few example scenarios in his 2023 article “Corpus Linguistics and Technical Editing: How Corpora Can Help Copy Editors Adopt a Rhetorical View of Prescriptive Usage Rules.” When working for a dental company, he was told “esthetic” was the preferred variant for “aesthetic,” as it was more common in dentistry-related texts. He looked at the iWeb corpus and searched for the phrases “aesthetic dentistry” and “esthetic dentistry.” He found that “aesthetic” appeared 136 times while “esthetic” appeared 179 times. Although the difference between the two usages was not dramatic, the results of his quick corpus search reaffirms the frequency of  “esthetic” and supports the spelling he was asked to adopt. Corpus research helped him ensure that the style guide represented popular usage.

Smith also conducted three case studies with editing students by inviting them to imagine themselves as copyeditors in certain situations. In the first case study, students were told they were working at a financial firm founded in the 1950s as a technical editor. In this scenario, they had run across the use of “e-mail” in a document they were editing. According to the style guide in the scenario, “e-mail” was correct, but the last revision of the style guide was from 2006. The students were tasked with using the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) to support a proposal for the company to adopt “email” as the preferred spelling. 

Smith discusses what the students found. “Email” appears 582 times and “e-mail” appears 1,752 times. While this seems to favor the use of the hyphenated form, Smith notes that there is a marked increase of the term “email” from 2000 to 2019, so an argument can be made with supporting data to change the style guide. This and his other examples demonstrate how copyeditors can navigate language change through the use of corpora.


Traditional prescriptivism doesn’t address—or may no longer apply to—everything we edit. Copyediting should be done with a more rhetoric-based approach; the use of corpora is a way to rely on more than just prescriptive rules; it’s a way to weave in descriptive data and stay accurate to modern language usage. By integrating the use of corpora into copyediting, editors can become “informed prescriptivists” (Smith 2023, 200).

“Instead of unthinkingly adhering to a set of rules, technical communicators— including technical copy editors—should know the rules in order to make rhetorically informed choices about the kind of currency these rules carry with certain audiences.”

Smith (2023)

Language continues to change, whether driven by social-justice movements or by the natural productivity and creativity of writers and speakers. By taking a rhetorical approach to prescriptive rules, copyeditors can stay up-to-date on usage trends and avoid social problems that may naturally be associated with outdated rules.

So the next time you have a question about a style guide or can’t seem to find an accurate depiction of the edit you want to make, consider turning to a corpus to see how language is actually being used.

To learn more about using corpora and copyediting, read the full article: 

Smith, Jordan. 2023. “Corpus Linguistics and Technical Editing: How Corpora Can Help Copy Editors Adopt a Rhetorical View of Prescriptive Usage Rules.” Journal of Business and Technical Communication 37, no. 2: 194–216. 

—Alyssa J. Stevens, Editing Research


Find more research

Read Dallin D. Oak’s (2021) article to find out more about linguistic prescriptivism and the role it plays in applied linguistics: “Linguistic Encounters in Real World Prescriptivism: Acknowledging Its Place and Role.” Lingua 262.

Take a look at Brady Davis’s Editing Research article for more information on the combination of corpora and copy editing: “How to Use Corpora to Edit Technical Articles Effectively and Accurately.”