With friends like this
I live and work in the prescriptivist camp, but I’m not always comfortable with the company.
Editors are inherently prescriptivist, because we’re employed to make judgments about what is most appropriate for publication, audience and context — and to get out of the way of elegance. Descriptivists, like the doughty linguists at Language Log, range over all written and spoken language, formal and informal, standard and nonstandard, to turn their findings into scholarship. (That’s the grand thing about an academic discipline: Once you own a grinder, you can turn anything into sausage.) Each of us has legitimacy within our respective spheres, and, given a little reasonableness and tact, each of us has something to learn from the other.
Reasonableness and tact, however, are in short supply, as I was reminded by a look at Kathy Schenck’s estimable blog, Words to the Wise, at the Milwaukee paper. Writing about last week’s national conference of the American Copy Editors Society, she praised a workshop conducted by Bill Walsh on rules of usage that are not really rules.
Now Mr. Walsh requires no endorsement from this quarter. He works as a copy editor at the newspaper that commissioned one of John Philip Sousa’s greatest marches, he has been writing on language and editing on the Internet since 1995, and he has produced two useful books, Lapsing into a Comma and The Elephants of Style. Though I don’t agree with him on every particular, I always respect his judgment. His “rules” workshop attempts to demolish shibboleths of usage that have been repeatedly exploded by standard usage manuals — the split infinitive, the preposition at the end of the sentence, the conjunction at the beginning of the sentence, etc., etc., etc.
And yet someone by the name of Dick Feyrer fulminates in this comment:
“Walsh should be shot! Ok, maybe not, but I'd revoke his journalism license for murder of the language, dumbing down journalism, insulting intelligent readers and other things too numerous to list. Casual usage may suggest touchy-feely truthiness, but undermines credibility at the expense of the (wink, wink) ‘We are your buddy’ syndrome media advertising wonks favor.”
That Mr. Feyrer is ill-informed we should take as given. But that is merely one of the odious traits that prescriptivists often display. A short inventory of additional items:
Ad hominem attacks on anyone who disagrees.
Violence of language out of proportion to any issue at hand.
The erroneous belief that the language is degenerating or being harmed.
Implicit in that view is the belief that there used to be some higher standard of usage now being violated or abandoned. (Jonathan Swift, writing in 1710 (!), fumed that "ignorance and want of taste, have produced … the continual corruption of our English tongue, which, without some timely remedy, will suffer more by the false refinements of twenty years past, than it hath been improved in the foregoing hundred.”
Somehow English, despite having been dumbed down and subjected to homicidal violence for three centuries, has contrived to become a world language, in wider use than Latin at its height.*
Keep at it, Bill. Chip away at the misconceptions. We may yet prevail.