Given that this seems to come up every now and again, generally brought up by users from Stack Overflow who wish to enforce the Right Way™ of doing things at TeX.SX,1 I thought it might make sense to try to provide a more comprehensive answer, taking into account some of the discussion that has ensued, in particular the discussion in:
- Why were my edits rejected? and
- Consensus vs accepted answers on meta
There are three overarching points in this post. I've demarcated these three points with section headings.2
A positive argument based on copyright and attribution
First, I think Paulo Cereda has already made a great case for respecting a poster's style in his answer to Why were my edits rejected? given reasons of copyright and attribution:
I see the SE network as an awesome Q&A knowledge base, a new tendency. But I fear that people misunderstand the real concept and see threads as collaborative wiki. If it's a wiki, everything is fine, because you are collaboratively editing stuff. The Q&A model is based on people asking and answering questions. The site footer gives us a hint:
user contributions licensed under cc-wiki with attribution required
If we take a closer look on these links, we find the following statement:
Attribution - You must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor (but not in any way that suggests that they endorse you or your use of the work).
When we edit things from other users, we are signing a risky contract: we are somehow influencing the author's contribution - for better or for worse. But note that it's up to the author to decide if the modifications to his/her answer should really take place.
A negative argument based on readability and comprehension
Now, Paulo does go on to mention that we should nonetheless keep in mind that edits improving spelling and grammar are probably Good Things™.
So we can ask whether editing barbara's answers to fix capitalization would fall into the category of improving spelling and grammar. The answer is no, at least not if we take improve to mean something like 'make more readable, make more comprehensible, etc.'.
The fact that writing systems are technological inventions is an underappreciated fact. They postdate human use of language, and they are, ultimately, nothing more than technological inventions that encode a set of conventions that we use to represent the language in our heads.
Now, certain conventions, such as consistent spelling, are arguably useful. Conventions that demarcate sentence boundaries are also arguably useful. In fact, they reflect prosodic cues that one gets in spoken language.3
The conventions that are used by this particular technological invention for encoding English happen to employ two methods of demarcating sentence boundaries: capitalization and punctuation. So, in a sense, we have some redundancy.
There are only a few edge cases where the use of these two methods is not redundant. Specifically, in cases where the conventions used for transcribing English employ a period to mark an abbreviation, such as in "et al." or "etc." we might see non-redundancy. An example of this might be:
in this case, you don't want to use the commands like
\it, etc. you should use
Here, it's not immediately clear whether the second sentence is a separate sentence or not, just from inspecting capitalization and punctuation. Nonetheless, we can still figure out what was said, and it's pretty easy to determine, based on context, what the sentence boundaries are. One user has claimed that:
Barbara's posts as they currently stand are well-nigh unreadable gibberish.
This is patently false. Any user that can read and comprehend English can read and comprehend barbara's answers. Though I tried searching the internet for studies on whether there is any empirical evidence documenting a decrease in comprehension/readability based on lack of sentence-initial capitalization, I could not find anything.4 Nonetheless, I have an intuition—an intuition that I suspect others share, if they are honest with themselves—that there would be no significant difference in comprehension, should someone actually bother to conduct an empirical study.
Now, tohecz worries that this will lead to peOPlE adOPTing TeEN caSINg. First point to note: it is now 2014 (no longer 2012, the time of tohecz's comment), and, as far as I am aware, there has been no instance of this. Second point to note: there is actually an argument to be made that fixing someone's post that uses "teen casing" improves readability/comprehension. Again, I haven't found any empirical studies, but I have an intuition—as well as the phenomenological experience—that reading "teen casing" is harder and takes longer than reading normal casing. I suspect this would be confirmed with an empirical study, should someone really want to waste their time carrying out such a study.
Thus, this warrants editing the ridiculous behavior of the user who asked Consensus vs accepted answers on meta because they eventually edited the question to include this:
Specifically, editing such a post would improve the comprehension and readability of the post for at least two reasons:
- the user does not conform to conventional English spelling (which makes it particularly hard for non-native speakers of English to understand); and
- the use of code/keyboard markup might mislead one into thinking that
STYLEZ, for example, is a tag or a LaTeX package or something, a hypothesis which is probably easily dismissible, but might nonetheless confuse new users on the site
So, the "consensus"5 on TeX.SX at the time of writing seems to be to respect barbara's style—which is readable and comprehensible—not any style. That is to say, there is not a rational argument in favor of not respecting her particular style.
A positive argument from changing the meaning of an answer
Nonetheless, if one is able to delude oneself into thinking that lack of sentence-initial capitalization somehow really turns some writing into "well-nigh unreadable gibberish",6 there is a further positive argument for respecting barbara's style, in addition to the one already sketched by Paulo. This one comes from David Carlisle in a comment:
@DavidMulder You are ignoring the fact that your edit was simply a bad edit, irrespective of any general conventions about fixing grammar. It changes the meaning of the answer (given the statement on the user profile). Perhaps you think that's a bad convention for a user to have but making all following readers believe that a statement is an official policy statement of the American Mathematical Society when it was explicitly marked as not being so in its original form is a bad edit and should be reverted.
The moral of the story
So, even if you don't buy the negative argument I've sketched (for whatever reason), we still have at least two positive reasons (actually, more than two, cf., fn. 2) for why we ought to respect barbara's style, which is not to say that we ought to respect any style, if that style really makes a post harder to comprehend or read (especially for non-native speakers of English). In such cases as those, editing is then probably the Right Way™ and a Good Thing™.
- Indeed, percusse counts seven such users.
- The three points in this answer are tailored to the particular point under discussion: the poster's style (in particular, barbara's style), so I will not mention any of the points that were already made in When is (and isn't) it acceptable to edit? one of which is a further reason not to edit for spelling/grammar 'errors' because "[e]diting a question/answer for such small issues has the undesired effect of bringing the question back to the homepage, which can become a nuisance for frequent users of the site".
- Prosody is just a fancy way of saying "intonation". Intonation is often used to demarcate sentence boundaries, among other things, in spoken language. The specifics depend on the language.
- Probably because such a study sounds like a pointless waste of time.
- I do not like using this word to describe the state of affairs on Stack Exchange. See my answer here.
- Or, alternatively, if one is so attached to prescriptivist ideals that one needs to change the definition of improve to be something like 'conform to redundant conventions' in order to rationalize their vehement defense of editing all of barbara's answers.