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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.


*Sorry, Alice.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:41 AM | | Comments (3)


Since you patiently answered my last question (immediately prior post) here's another question: Can you suggest two separate names for the two types of prescriptivists you mentioned today?

I think we need a term to separate them into two camps:

First, those who strive for appropriate, readable, and standard usage -- as you characterize your own position and as you demonstrate in what you say here in this blog.

Second, the ones whose "odious traits" (to use your perfect description for them) suggest that their interest in proving themselves superior to other users of English (or other language commentators) exceeds any actual interest the usage questions.

Swift knew what he was talking about. While Romana lingua didn't have the widespread use enjoyed by English (although it was a big Empire), I still like it for its economy of style and means, two qualities that so-called 'standard English' seems to deplore. Why use 10 words when 20 will do? Ave, Alice.

"While Romana lingua didn't have the widespread use enjoyed by English (although it was a big Empire), I still like it for its economy of style and means, two qualities that so-called 'standard English' seems to deplore."

Then let's stop using definite and indefinite articles. I'm sure we could get along without them, as the Romans did (and the Russians continue to do). And let's revive noun and verb inflexions so that we don't have to use so many prepositions and personal pronouns.

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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
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