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.