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No more catering to peevers

I am taking a stand with Arrant Pedantry, whose proprietor points out the flaw in going along with shibboleths and superstitions—split infinitives, singular they, hopefully as a sentence adverb, you know them—of usage to avoid exciting the attention of their adherents:

The problem with the it’s-not-wrong-but-don’t-do-it philosophy is that, while it feels like a moderate, open-minded, and more descriptivist approach in theory, it is virtually indistinguishable from the it’s-wrong-so-don’t-do-it philosophy in practice. You can cite all the linguistic evidence you want, but it’s still trumped by the fact that you’d rather avoid annoying that small subset of readers. It pays lip service to the idea of descriptivism informing your prescriptions, but the prescription is effectively the same. All you’ve changed is the justification for avoiding the usage. ...

You can’t please everyone, so you have to make a choice: will you please the small but vocal peevers, or the more numerous reasonable people? If you believe there’s nothing technically wrong with hopefully or singular they, maybe you should stand by those beliefs instead of caving to the critics.

In editing, I haven’t revised split infinitives or stranded prepositions for years. Recently I stopped rewriting singular they in copy and have encountered no reaction; perhaps it is becoming so commonplace that even the peevers don’t always register it. And now I think it’s time to stet hopefully.

Here’s a suggestion for you: Go back to yesterday’s post about the fifth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary and copy the entry on hopefully. Keep it handy. When you get an email from a reader complaining that you allowed it, paste the entry and hit Reply. If it doesn’t persuade, it may at least silence.

You know how the Associated Press Stylebook decides on usage? Its editors say that they follow the practice of newspapers. You know what newspapers do about usage? They follow the AP Stylebook. (Or did while they still troubled to employ copy editors.) That serpent has been chewing on its own tail long enough. It makes more sense for informed writers and editors to establish usage than to cede authority to the zombie rule crowd.

That does not mean that anything goes or that every skunked usage is fine. Editing always requires judgments. I am, for example, going to use prompts the question or raises the question when some statement or action leads to a question, restricting begs the question to contexts in which someone is making a circular argument. (So many people do that it is a useful term.) But I am highly unlikely ever to use niggardly. I know and you know that it comes from a Scandinavian root meaning “stingy” and has nothing more to do with a racial slur than an accidental phonetic resemblance. But the amount of energy involved in justifying it to a general and inflamed audience would be disproportionate, and the original point would be lost in the shouting anyhow.

You, too, will have to draw lines, depending on subject, occasion, and audience, but I think you can be bolder than you have been.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:39 AM | | Comments (10)


My stab at the question:
AZ, 5/13/08: Crazies win:

Thanks for the link, John.

It's also worth pointing out that all usage advice is necessarily circular. We all base our practice on what we believe the general practice is, which then becomes the example for others to base their practice on.

I think the problem comes when we don't realize we're doing it or when we trick ourselves into thinking that the widespread practice we're imitating reflects the practice of society as a whole rather than just the very small cadre of writers and editors who make style and usage decisions. That's when edited usage starts to become detached from the real world.

In my view, "begs the question" is skunked (a metaphor I dislike, but there it is): it will simply confuse people who don't understand it, and "argues in a circle" is much clearer.

Some thots possibly noted here before:

If the goal of prescriptivists [is] just to guard against things some readers find annoying then their primary obligation would be to shut up. No error of grammar can be as annoying as someone who lectures people about their grammar.
-- "TruePath" []

In this day and age, it seems, an injunction against splitting infinitives is one of those shibboleths whose only reason for survival is to give increased meaning to the lives of those who can both identify by name a discrete grammatical, syntactic, or orthographic entity and notice when that entity has been somehow besmirched.
-- Chicago Manual of Style Q&A (aka the sainted Carol Fisher Saller) []

@John Cowan -- that's the way our style guide treats "comprise." Either people get it wrong or half the readership _thinks_ you've gotten it wrong. So the editorial board threw up its collective hands and just advises "Avoid."

Completely agree, John. My editing of technical documents has always been, is this sentence as clear as it can possibly be and is the risk of misunderstanding it as low as possible?

In my job and yours, we're trying to inform. Your field tries to be entertaining enough to hold readers, and I'm frequently glad that is not required of me.

Creating some construction that doesn't "ring true" because of someone else's rule doesn't contribute anything to understanding.

I got my boss to change "begs the question" to "raises the question" in one of his editorials just this week. So that one's still winnable.

Granted, most people don't know what "beg the question" means anymore, but I think it's still worth the effort to change it when it's used wrongly.

John Cowan: I don't think I've ever come across a use of "begs the question" to mean "raises the question" that was unclear or ambiguous in context, though I can see how the logical fallacy could easily be misunderstood. Do you happen to have any examples? And I fully agree that "circular reasoning" or "circular argument" is a better term for the fallacy.

If you have to keep sending the same reply, you may find that your email tool will allow you to make it a "signature."

Then you can just hit "reply," choose the appropriate signature, and send. Cuts out some cut-and-paste.

Jonathon: I haven't either, but I think the people who don't understand the phrase (and would understand "raises the question") plus the people who are peeved by it trump the people who take it for granted.

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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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