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Language before rules

I have retweeted a comment by Joseph M. Williams that Stan Carey sent out earlier today:

We must reject as folklore any rule … regularly ignored by otherwise careful, educated, and intelligent writers of first-rate prose.

The principle underlying this statement is one that the peevers and purists fail to grasp: Language precedes the rules; the rules follow the language.

The reason that we have English is that generations of illiterate peasants ignored the rules of Anglo-Saxon and promiscuously picked up vocabulary and patterns from Norman French and Latin, mangling all three.

Attempts to legislate or dictate usage may have some spotty successes — there are still people who mistakenly adhere to John Dryden’s dictum, adopted from Latin, forbidding prepositions at the ends of sentences, though many more ignore it; Noah Webster succeeded in changing some spellings in American English, notably removing the u from color, honor, and others, though many of his recommendations did not stick.

But the language goes where the users take it, and the authorities on usage can only follow.

Also on Twitter, @PreciseEdit has advised “Avoid nominalization: Keep verbs as verbs, not as nouns.” This advice should please the people who despise impact as a verb, but it is an oversimplification. The language blog at The Economist has a much more nuanced approach to the verbing of nouns. In fact, the practice of shifting a word from one part of speech to another is so commonplace that it has a name in classical rhetoric, anthimeria. Shakespeare uses it (“I’ll unhair thy head” in Antony and Cleopatra); drink is either a noun or a verb in context.

The language regularly throws up neologisms and vogue usages, most of which flare and go out. They attract the bandwagon people, who chase after novelty, and they repel the cautious. There is nothing inherently wrong about receptivity to novelties, and there is nothing inherently wrong about resistance to novelties until it is clear that they have established themselves.

What is wrong, or at least futile, is to decide in advance what is and is not acceptable, based on some presumed rule or a personal taste. This is why an Academy of English will not work, and you are not even an academy.


Posted by John McIntyre at 1:48 PM | | Comments (3)


I suppose simple, snappy rules will always have advantages over context-dependent complexity. Many people just don't have the time, which is fair enough. Most of the trouble seems to arise when the 'rules' are made gospel and used as social weapons.

The ellipsis in the quote replaced "that is"; the full quote, from the chapter on usage in Williams's Style, is as follows: "We must reject as folklore any rule that is regularly ignored by otherwise careful, educated, and intelligent writers of first-rate prose."

I whole-heartedly agree, Mr McIntyre. I follow "rules" in my technical writing only because I am writing for clarity and I have an international audience. The purpose of my prose is to instruct, not entertain. Careful adherence to certain stylistic conventions and consistency will help my readers. It's not a question of "right" but a question of "can I be clear and unambiguous"?

If I've done my job right, there is only one way to interpret what I've written.

Does anthimeria have a verb form?

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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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