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My prescription

The motto of Gabe Doyle’s blog Motivated Grammar is “Prescriptivism Must Die!” And yet an examination of where he and I stand suggests a fair amount of common ground.*

I quote a salient passage from his recent post, “Gentlemen prefer prescriptivists”:

“If you want to know why descriptivists oppose rule-following in the absence of any justification for the rule, you don’t have to sit there and wonder if it’s something deeper. It’s right there! The absence of justification for a rule means that it is not a valid rule and should be opposed! Sure, demanding that people follow inaccurate rules reeks of snobbery, but that takes a back seat to the fact that you’re demanding that people follow inaccurate rules.”

And this: “Truth is hard, and linguistic truth is no exception. You have a choice, and you can live in a fantasy world with one right way of writing, where grammar is a series of edicts from an out-of-date book, and people who deviate from that book are verbally lashed with sharp-tongued put-downs. You can also live in a world where you can choose among multiple acceptable ways of writing something, you can actually research your claims about language usage, and in exchange you just can’t tell everyone who doesn’t say something your way that they are a moron. If you think that the first of these two options is preferable, then maybe you deserve that world.”

If you look at Mr. Doyle’s posts on debunked grammar myths posted on the successive National Grammar Days of 2009, 2010, and 2011, you will find many items that have also been roundly denounced, often for decades, by prescriptivists—H.W. Fowler, Theodore Bernstein, and Bryan Garner among them. Not all—there’s plenty of room for differing opinion on usage— but many.

We who edit are expected to be prescriptive, hired to follow a house style for clarity and consistency, to meet the expectations of particular audiences, to establish a particular level of diction, and to maintain the consistency of the text within identifiable variants of standard written English.

To do that effectively, we must not substitute our judgment for that of the writer without reasons that we can articulate and justify, and, as Mr. Doyle insists, we must not be in thrall to inaccurate rules—the ones Arnold Zwicky describes as “zombie rules” that continue to lurk among us and attempt to eat our brains.

 

*To anyone who has questioned my credentials as a presciptivist because I have been receptive to reasonable arguments by linguists, lexicographers, and other descriptivists, I say this: If one of your texts should come under my hands, you will find very quickly how much a prescriptivist I am.

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 3:53 PM | | Comments (3)
        

Comments

It should also be noted that much of what an editor does is not accurately described as "applying rules," unless we're talking about copyeditors.

Often, the raw copy given to an editor will be highly redundant and benefit from a careful trim and condensation. The author may have failed to hit the idiom in places, created faults in parallelism, and so forth. These require care and sensitivity to address.

Then, in addition to all that, there will usually be errors in spelling and punctuation. There's a lot involved here beyond applying general style rules.


What's up, doc McI.?

Suffering from basic grammar malaise, I think I'll just take two over-the-counter 81 mg. strength chewable baby "asterisks", and hopefully some kind soul will wake me up in the morning. Don't need a prescription for that, right? (I just took my extra strength 'silly' pill, by the way. HA!)

ALEX

I think Mr Doyle's tone is unpleasantly shrill, and that he seems perhaps a little short on generosity of spirit.

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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 john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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