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And you call yourself a prescriptivist?

During workshops yesterday at the Frederick News-Post, I was cruising through my catalogue, familiar to readers of this blog, of outdated and bogus rules of usage and indicating places in which the language is plainly shifting.

As usual, I got questions from participants trained in the everything-is-either-right-or-wrong-there-is-no-shade-of-gray school. And, though everyone was quite polite, I could sense some worrisome thoughts forming among the listeners: Are there no rules any longer? Has he turned his coat? Abjured the faith? Gone over to the Dark Side?

In my house there are many Englishes, and the mistake that some teachers and many mavens made is to talk as if there were only one legitimate variety. So the Tory-Tory-hallelujah faction in Britain scorns Americanisms, John Simon and that crowd carry on about the fancied corruption of the language, and everyone deplores the way the Young People speak and write.

Yet even in the sacred realm of Standard Written English, the dialect that all are enjoined to protect from the encroaching barbarism, there is a whole continuum of usage. Academic writing is at one impenetrable end of that continuum (mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be scholars), daily newspapers, with all their solecisms, at another. A publication like The New Yorker, reasonably formal but conversational (especially now that it’s OK for its writers to use Bad Words) stands somewhere in the middle range.

In my own writing, there are usages that I insist on for myself and also do for others, usages that I have given way on, and still others that I uphold for the satisfaction of my own taste,while realizing that they are probably lost causes. These are judgments, and writing and editing are inseparable from the constant making of judgments.

The starting point for judgment is your personal set of preferences, developed through what you were taught, what you have learned through weighing the arguments of the conflicting authorities, and what your sense of where the language is at this moment, as derived from your widest range of reading and listening.

Then, in your writing and editing for publication, you bend your personal tastes and preferences to judgments based on a three-part set of questions: Is this usage appropriate for this subject? Is it appropriate for this audience? Is it appropriate for this publication?

There are still rules, but fewer than you were probably taught. The judgments are endless.



To those who have inquired about the photograph from the post of July 7, I neither own nor wear white shoes.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:14 AM | | Comments (1)


Well, grey shoes would look nice with that suit I think.

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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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