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.


  1. "...the way people speak influences the written language." This is so true! Just axe anybody!

  2. I suppose he's also up for apoplexy over "it's me," too.

  3. I'm on your side, squire, but ....

    You were taught that rule about "shall" and "will" in ONLY one meaning of shall and will.

    Describing Fowler as an arch-prescriptivist is nonsense. He was a very moderate prescriptivist for his day - like wot you are.

    In your original post you gave insufficient weight, I would suggest, to "whom" as the object of a preposition, where the rules are still, I reckon, very firm: where even Mr Zwicky and you would agree, I think.

    I'm afraid I wag my finger (faintly) at "I wish I was" and it surprises me that you don't: I (BrE) had been led to believe the subjunctive had more spirit in it in AmE than in BrE. I bet you say "I wish I were" don't you, Mr McI? And that you'd change the was to were if you were copy-editing?

    I still call a stroke an apoplexy (as well as a stroke).

    OF COURSE I think that you are very reasonable, and that Bro Kefauver is not - but don't overdo the kowtowing to Language Log; it will only end in tears.

  4. For whom, the bell tolls, it tolls for you Mr. Kefauver.

  5. Theirs just no keeping some people happy when there vexed. Its a berberian hoard out they're. Well, you get my meaning...

  6. "Once a day, don't you wanna throw the towel in?"

    Break a leg.

  7. The truth is that all good editors need to be descriptivsits too. If you're not paying attention to how language is actually used, then all you're left with is a bunch of rules in a style guide. Obviously this doesn't mean that you have to embrace every linguistic innovation or edit your writing to sound like casual speech. A good editor also pays attention to when and how certain forms are used.

    And I love the circularity in Mr. Kefauver's complaint: rules require editors to enforce them, and editors are there to enforce the rules. Heaven forbid we actually try to justify the rules we follow or consider their value to or effect on the reader.

  8. >Just axe anybody!

    You could start with Chaucer:

    Also of interest: Recency Illusion (

  9. 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!

  10. EK you need to teach at an inner city middle school for a while.

  11. Patricia the TerseApril 26, 2010 at 1:07 AM

    Ah, it must be uncomfortable to sit on that fence. Rather like a middle-of-the-road anything - dangerous at times.

  12. You're only a prescriptivist by self-identification. I've never seen you quack like anything other than a descriptivist, so I've never understood why you perceive yourself a member of the other side.