John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to jemcintyre@gmail.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Tagged as a descriptivist


If you missed yesterday’s post, “For whom, the bell tolls,” or read it yesterday, you have missed a recent comment by a reader signing in as Eastabrook Kefauver who invites me to bend over for a dozen of the best:

To Whom it May Concern:
If whom is useless, then "between you and I" is OK, right? Wny not let's all just be consistently sloppy, all around? I'm constantly amazed that descriptivist editors weep over their profession's demise, while they simultaneously decry the same rules that make their very existence such a necessity. You can't have it both ways: if you want gatekeepers, you have to put them in charge of the keys. They can't drop the keys down the well and go drinking in the sun, hoping their jobs will still be there when they sober up.


This, I suppose, is what comes of my lollygagging with those louche characters at Language Log. But since some of you newcomers may not have encountered my protestations and professions, let me repeat them:

I am a moderate presciptivist. I do not endorse sloppy writing, but I try to recognize how the language is actually being used and how it can be most effectively wielded to reach an audience. I distinguish between actual rules, stylistic guidelines, and superstitions about English grammar and usage.

Let’s invite Mr. Kefauver to have a look at enforcement of rules. I was taught, for example, to use shall with first-person singular and plural pronouns, will with second- and third-person singular and plural pronouns. Is Mr. Kefauver in danger of an apoplexy* if he hears someone say, “I will look that up”?

How about the subjunctive, which arch-prescriptivist H.W. Fowler said eighty years ago is on its last legs in English? Does Mr. Kefauver wag his finger at every “I wish I was” he encounters?

At the grill cooking the weekend steaks or burgers, does Mr. Kefauver protect his shirt and trousers from spatters with a napron? That’s what the word was originally. It’s apron now because the way people speak influences the written language.

I confess that I sometimes wonder whether some of the people who comment have troubled to read what the posts actually say. I know how to use whom and will continue to use it. But there is no dispute that it has largely fallen out of spoken American English and is often used mistakenly (Mistakenly means wrongly, Mr. Kefauver, however odd that might sound coming from a “descriptivist editor”) in writing, even by professionals.

A reliable editor makes judgments about the language, about what is worth holding onto and what might as well be given up, about what is appropriate to a particular audience. Judgments differ, and authorities differ, so perhaps discussion might be a more effective means of arriving at sound judgments than denunciations.



*Sorry, we don’t call a stroke an apoplexy any longer, because language changes over time.