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Shoot if you must this old gray head

A recent comment on a comment took what looks very much like a shot at the author of these postings: “Alas, usage rules based on actual usage by Actual People Who Know What They're Doing With English have little chance against entrenched rules based on ... uh ... well, decisions by the lexirati. Sorry. :-) See also: that/which.”

Newly humbled to learn that I am a lexirato rather than an Actual Person, I’d merely like to restate some points that should have been clear to readers of this blog since its first numbers last December.

English has far fewer rules than many people are taught, and much of what people have been taught is flat wrong. You can end a sentence with a preposition, split an infinitive, separate an auxiliary verb and main verb with an adverb, use “none of them” with a plural verb, and do many other things with impunity. None of these things violate (See?) English grammar and usage.

What I have tried to do is to follow the principle — not a rule — of H.W. Fowler that when there has developed in the language a useful distinction of meaning, careful writers and editors will observe that distinction. Yes, Fowler showed the bad judgment to be British, white, middle-class, classically educated, opinionated, and dead for more than 70 years. He made a number of cranky points, but his distinction is still a useful one.

That is why a precise writer will not confuse loath and loathe, rebut and refute, mantel and mantle. A precise writer will not use enormity to mean a big thing or dilemma to mean merely a difficulty. That is why it is reasonable to use that with restrictive clauses and which with nonrestrictive or parenthetical clauses; it is not a rule, but doing so contributes to clarity. (Yes, tell me again that the Brits use which for both. It’s not a rule to use elevator instead of lift, but it’s a good idea for writers in the United States to do so.)

Whom does this principle hurt? A reader who does not make fine distinctions will not notice, and the reader who does will appreciate them.

But you Actual People out there remain free to disagree. Fire away.

Posted by John McIntyre at 2:06 PM | | Comments (4)
        

Comments

I'm with you, John. Just because we're "language people" doesn't mean we all have to enjoy language the same way. Some people like carefully crafted, thoughtful, conservative writing, some people like creative, off-the-cuff writing, and some people like carefully crafted, thoughtful, creative, non-traditional writing. I think it's great to analyze writing and point out what you think is good the same way I think it's great that Jim Murray analyzes whisky and points out what he thinks is good. It's helpful in thinking about language and whisky, even if I don't always agree.

I'm torn. Can I belong to both the lexerati and the Actual People? I care about language, but question that distinctions like McIntyre's "dilemma" are any longer relevant.

Language belongs to the people who use it. Let it evolve.

Yes, by all means let's let the wonderfully precise and colorful "dilemma" die so that we can have 67 synonyms for "problem" instead of just 66.

John, I see nothing here to rebut or refute--which, incidentally, my dictionaries list as synonyms, hence this redundancy. Bummer! your data are apparently correct! (Damn! that's a hard phrase to say! What's Fowler's recommendation on that one? and how might he feel about "bummer"?)

But--and I'm intentionally starting this sentence with a coordinating conjunction!--ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which none of us should put! (with a wink and a nod to W. Churchill).

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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