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/.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Get a grip

I was amused, after the Congress enacted the president’s legislation to reform health care, by the overreaction, the screaming that our liberties have been taken from us, that the Constitution is a dead letter — all over enactment of what looks suspiciously like a moderate Republican measure.

Even more comical has been overreaction to the past couple of posts at this site, “For whom, the bell tolls” and “Tagged as a descriptivist.” If you missed the latest, here it is, from “EK”:

I care not one jot if people write or speak poorly. I sleep soundly at night knowing there ARE rules to follow and y'all can dismiss them at your blue- penciled peril. Contrary to the cant of the "moderate prescriptivists" (really? Is that like using 67% birth control?), the spoken argot does NOT determine the standards for correct written English. If that were the case, this world would sound and read like A Clockwork Orange. The descriptivist apoplectics and apologists out there want it both ways. It's like saying: "Well, this sign doesn't really mean 'Stop'--after all, there aren't any cars in the intersection!..." And those double yellow lines in the road? That's just a guideline--no need to really pay atten--SMASH!


The conventions of written English are mutable. We used to put commas between the subject and verb in the eighteenth century, but no longer; the nineteenth century liked to combine the semicolon with the dash, and we now tend to shy away from the semicolon altogether. These conventions are not somehow equivalent to statute, or the Second Law of Thermodynamics. But I, it appears, some witling tool of the descriptivist cabal, am part of the reason that the centre cannot hold and mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, and I am not going to take away their whoms until I pry them from their cold, dead hands.

Take a deep cleansing breath, people, and stop passing around those copies of the Protocols of the Elders of Descriptivism.

There is no English Academy. There is no authority to establish and enforce English grammar and usage, and no proposal to set up such an authority has ever, in the entire history of the language, gained traction. English is what its users make it. I have one vote, as does “EK,” as do you.

As anyone who owns a dictionary can see, vocabulary mutates over time, as new words enter the language and old ones drop out and take on new senses. The same thing happens with the conventions of written English; the capitalization and punctuation we use today is not quite the same as the capitalization and punctuation of previous centuries. And, since the language is what its users make it, the same is true of the grammar; we have English after all because a rabble of illiterate peasants from the eleventh to fourteenth centuries eighty-sixed many of the rules of Anglo-Saxon grammar. (Thank them for that.)

That is not the same thing as saying that there are no rules and everything goes. In “Rules are rules” I cited the thoroughgoing descriptivist Geoffrey Pullum on that point. There are indeed rules of English grammar that writers must follow to appear educated and literate. But rules are not the same thing as stylistic conventions, and there is even give in some of the rules. That is why, in the more than a thousand posts since I began this blog in 2005, I have loosened up considerably as I have become better informed — but still a moderate prescriptivist.

Or, to ram home the point by citing H.L. Mencken in The American Language once more:

The error of ... viewers with alarm is in assuming that there is enough magic in pedagogy to teach ‘correct’ English to the plain people. There is, in fact, too little; even the fearsome abracadabra of Teachers College, Columbia, will never suffice for the purpose. The plain people will always make their own language, and the best that grammarians can do is to follow after it, haltingly, and often without much insight. Their lives would be more comfortable if they ceased to repine over it, and instead gave it some hard study. It is very amusing, and not a little instructive.