Thursday, February 4, 2010

No man's land

Alexandra D’Arcy, a sociolinguist at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, takes a hearty swipe at prescriptivists ⎯ her grandmother among them ⎯ in the first installment of a monthly column at Oxford University Press’s OUPblog.

Her grandmother was old-school old school:

In the proud tradition of language purists, Grandmother found anything other than ‘the standard’ objectionable. But it was not only ‘bad’ grammar that bothered her. Slang, jargon, and meanings with which she was unfamiliar were also irksome. This is because, true to her prescriptivist heart, she firmly believed that any linguistic change was a bad thing. When my History of the English Language professor observed that the distinction between lay and lie was being lost among younger speakers (good luck asking a twenty-year-old to run the paradigms), I had the poor enough judgment to share this insight with Grandmother. Since I could never keep straight what was laying and who was lying, this was a lesson that resonated with me. I might as well have told her that going out in public without a bra had become the vogue. She was outraged. She demanded the name of my professor and vowed to phone the head of the department to extract an explanation: How could such as esteemed establishment, her own alma mater no less, employ such a reckless (and feckless) individual? Surely this professor was no academic!

Professor D’Arcy, though, is the very model of a modern sociolinguist:

I describe language as actually used and I revel in the differences and variations of language in practice. Despite my proud ancestry, there is no place for prescription in my world. The notion of should does not apply. … Grandmother taught me to revere the spoken word. I do. She taught me to heed not only the content but also the form. I do. She also taught me that not everybody speaks the same way. And it is this fundamental truth that makes me excited to go to work every day.

So please don’t watch your words. To quote a friend, ‘I like the way you talk.

I enjoy a false dichotomy as much as the next man ⎯ you may remember a few posts back when I criticized an overly ingenious Washington Post headline, one reader complained I was advocating dull, flat-footed headlines, as if that were the only possible alternative. So I am happy to tuck in to Professor D’Arcy’s.

No doubt her grandmother, that starchy peever, would level a charge of heresy against me for some of my posts and demand that I be turned over to the secular arm. No doubt her granddaughter would turn her gimlet eye on me for my presuming to advise people on how to write. Here I am, neither fish nor fowl.

I, like Professor D’Arcy, like the way you talk. And write. Generally. As I have told you before, I don’t care how you talk in conversation, or how you write in e-mail, how you tweet on Twitter, or how you text friends and family. Not my business. Should you contribute to the richness of the English language, I salute you.

Should you write for publication, I, like Professor D’Arcy’s grandmother, have some standards in mind, though much more flexible ones. I’ve written about the rules of standard written English, conventions of American standard written English that are not actually rules, guidelines for writing effectively in that dialect, and superstitions that get in the way of clarity and directness of expression. I am, as I have repeatedly asserted, a moderate and reasonable prescriptivist, with the milk of human kindness by the quart in every vein, and I do not hesitate to give you my best advice about what you should do within that limited range of the language.

When you visit here, that is what you get.

Welcome to the middle ground.

A NOTE: Not that you have been counting, but this is my 1,000th post since beginning this blog in December 2005. Though the first 704 of them are no longer accessible at, I will continue to resurrect and revise some of that material here, so long as the repetition does not bore you utterly.


  1. You could never bore me utterly, Professor McIntyre. Or any other way, for that matter.

  2. John, your "middle ground" really resonated with me. The point of language is for one person to share the ideas in her head with one or more people. To do that, you need to have common understandings of language. It's easier to get your meaning across when speaking, because you can get instant feedback. In casual writing, you may also get instant feedback; your audience generally knows you better as well, so you share more understandings (e.g., you share jargon, slang, or language ticks). But when you want to publish your thoughts, your audience is generally going to be larger and broader. They don't know you; they don't know how you think, how you usually share your ideas. At that point, you must rely on the more formal rules of language that we have in common to ensure your message gets across.
    Language rules don’t exist for their own sake. They exist to ease communication, to help share a message, a meaning. When we hold on to rules just because they’re what we’ve always known, we avoid change. We must have guidelines, but we also must allow language to change to serve the individuals who speak it. The world we live and the people we are are not the same as, say, the world and the people from the Victorian Era. They didn’t have microwaves, computers, and other new inventions; they didn’t need the language to stretch to describe them. The horse and buggy are not much in use anymore and I’ve never had an occasion to wear a hoop skirt or a corset. Words to describe those things may be with us still, but they are rarely used. Language changes to suit the speakers. Life is change; so too must our language.

  3. And that's the reason why I visit here...: to get what I get. :)

  4. Actually, you are a Jamesian pragmatist, a uniquely American thing to be! Old school, "starchy peevers" are making the classic mistake identified by James when he said, "A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices."

  5. Are you "the shizzle for rizzle" McIntyre on Facebook? It says writer, but it could be another McIntyre writer. I'm a writer-proofreader at a Fortune 100 company, and it SO FRIGGIN annoying having project managers (on occasion) who probably flunked every English class they ever took, tell me to make a change because it doesn't "look right," or whatever. As a priest of punctuation, a saint of syntax, an emissary of American Enlish grammaticality, Mr. McIntyre: Is there a special place in publishing purgatory for these editorialogical dimwits?

  6. I am indeed the "shizzle fo rizzle" McIntyre on Facebook,bestowed upon me by JoAnne Schmitz, a former Sun colleague. I kind of like "Jamesian pragamtist" a little better, but who am I to turn down distinctions?

  7. Or, if you prefer, rearranging one's prejudices to suit someone else's prejudices. Either way, it seems difficult to navigate one's way through the Jamesian pragmatists, et alii.

  8. Yes!! YES!! Please continue to bring back archives from the Sun. You're a marvelous writer and I love your insights, lexical and otherwise.