You are what you speak
Dan Rodricks has kindly forwarded to me the e-mails that people sent in to Midday at WYPR-FM on Wednesday, National Grammar Day, when Martha Brockenbrough and I were guests. I will be responding to them in forthcoming posts on this blog.
But first, I want to make clear, again, what my project is. Descriptivists, like linguists and lexicographers, exercise a writ that covers the whole span of language, spoken and written, formal and informal. They describe what they find, and they find many interesting things. Prescriptivists, particularly of the hard-shell variety, want to tell you how to speak and write. Some of them worry about the supposed decline of English, which has been a recurring source of alarm for at least five centuries.
I am a moderate prescriptivist. I seek to distinguish rules from conventions (Making a subject and a verb agree is a rule; omitting a comma between a subject and a verb is a convention, and one that indulged the opposite practice in the 18th century). Moreover, schoolchildren have been taught many “rules” — the prohibition on the split infinitive or the preposition at the end of a sentence — that have no foundation in idiomatic English, and bad teaching must be countered. People were once told in advertising that smoking would help you keep your weight down — “Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet” — and have since had to unlearn that.
I am also an editor, so I don’t much care how you talk, or how you write in e-mail or text messages. My bailiwick is a particular dialect of the language, most frequently identified as “formal written English.” Texts in the ranges of that dialect concern me, and I seek to make them accurate, clear to the reader, observant of reasonable conventions, and, when possible, elegant in expression.
Some readers who write to me privately, like some of the listeners who called in to Dan’s show, are hesitant about grammar, which they have been trained to see as forbiddingly difficult and arcane. That is not so. If you speak English and are comprehensible to other speakers of English, you have English grammar in your head. What you may not have is a firm grip on the terminology to describe its technical details.
That need not worry you too much. After all, you may not have at your command the terminology for the technical processes of nutrition, but you are able to choose food, consume it and survive. If you want to be healthy, it might be to your advantage to learn some of those technicalities. If you want to write more effectively, you may need to master some technicalities in that area.
But if you want to eat potato chips, I have no intention of stopping you. Or of forgoing them myself.