Professor David Crystal’s message to the 2004 SfEP conference

It was a real pleasure and a privilege to receive your invitation to become an honorary vice-president of SfEP, and I very much regret that my first 'close encounter' – in this incarnation – has to be at a distance due to a prior commitment this weekend.

In fact, of course, as I reflect, this is a second close encounter, having fond memories of the Whitcombe Lecture at the annual conference in Birmingham a year ago. Since then, a series of editorial projects has kept my mind very firmly in the domain of copy-editing and proofreading, and I have somehow managed to find time to be an author too.

It is a curious schizophrenia, at one moment imposing my editorial will on everyone else – correction, humbly suggesting that my tentative suggestions be taken on board by the author – and the next having someone else's editorial will imposed on me. But in truth, I've worked with four copy-editors this past year, and each time it has been a huge value-added (have you encountered this latest usage, which I heard as a noun only this year?) to my books and hardly taxing at all.

But in that little word 'hardly' lies a hundred stories of lurking graphological and grammatical inconsistencies and uncertain intuitions, where I have had to admit, with reluctant humility, that my copy-editor or proofreader has seen what I have not seen. So I begin to wonder: what value-added will there be for me, while acting as an honorary vice-president of SfEP?

Perhaps, in some mysterious way, I will see everything now, and become supremely self-consistent. Perhaps the role will confer miraculous proof perception on me. Perhaps it will give me extra clout – so that next time I get an email which says I should have used 'which' instead of 'that' because I had used 'that' 32 pages before, I would simply draw myself up to my full virtual height and reply: 'But I am the honorary vice-president of the SfEP.' I wonder what reply I would get if I did that? 'Get knotted' (or worse)? 'Make my day, punk'? Or, possibly, 'What is SfEP'?

I hope not the latter – but it does surprise me that the Society is not more widely known, outside of its specialist area. And perhaps this, in the end, is where an honorary vice-president from a different planet can give some value-added in return. I intend to lose no opportunity to inform people about the work of the Society, in the circles I inhabit. And also about the workers within the Society, for there is no doubt in my mind that what you do – what we do – is hard, essential, professional work, largely unrecognized until it is not done well. Then they moan.

'They' are everywhere. And this use of indeterminate 'they' reminds me of the old French paradigm: 'Je travaille, tu travailles, il travaille, elle travaille, nous travaillons, vous travaillez, ils profitent.' I hope we will all mutually profit from this new appointment. And I very much hope to be able to renew my physical connection with the SfEP at the conference next year in my new role – not authorially, or speakerly, but vice-presidentially – truly, a close encounter of the third kind.