Listen to the doctor
It’s always bracing to visit the linguists at Language Log, in part because their views so sharply diverge from what copy editors and other journalists take for granted.
They despise Strunk and White, the totemic text from many composition classes, and they think that that secular saint George Orwell said fatuous things in “Politics and the English Language.” I have a nostalgic fondness for Strunk and White, which was a help in high school, though I no longer use it. And I think that Orwell should be cut some slack — considering that he wrote as England had nearly failed to stop Hitler and that the Soviet Union had half of Europe under lock and key, his fear that totalitarian control of language might shape human thought may have been wrong but did not look entirely fantastic.
All the same, the slaughter and roasting of so many sacred cattle is a glorious sight.
Not everyone agrees, of course. Over at the American Copy Editors Society’s discussion board, there is some thought — vigorously contested — that linguists just flaunt some bogus authority. I disagree. Linguistics is a genuine academic discipline, not a made-up one like journalism, and its practitioners speak with an authority that they have earned. You may prefer to play the piano by ear, but that doesn’t mean that a musicologist’s views are worthless. (Besides, it’s likelier that you’re playing air guitar.)
This does not mean that you have to give unquestioning assent to every statement by a linguist, but it is crucial to put aside newsroom philistinism and examine one’s own presuppositions and practices. There is always more to be learned, and sometimes one learns that it is possible for linguists and reasonable prescriptivists to clasp hands in agreement.
The more we can stop wasting time on meaningless distinctions and superstitions of usage, the more time we will have for necessary editing of the gray stodge that constitutes so much of American journalism.