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The first three letters of "assertionist"

Those of us in the prescriptivist tradition striving to break free of crazies and zombie rules can be grateful to Eugene Volokh of The Volokh Conspiracy for articulating a long-needed distinction:

“But while I have philosophical disagreements with prescriptivists in general, my main practical disagreements are with people who might best be labeled ‘assertionists’ — people who don’t just say that prescriptionists [“prescriptions” probably meant] set forth by some supposed authorities define what is ‘right’ in English, but who simply assert a prescription even in the face of what those supposed authorities say.”

Exhibit A is a person who commented on his post about the zombie rule that one may not begin a sentence with the conjunctions and, but, and or. “I have a Ph.D. in linguistics and I taught grammar at a university for 20 years — for what it is worth. It is indeed a rule in formal English that you cannot begin a sentence with a conjunction.”

Lord have mercy on the students who sat through those classes. Bryan Garner, whose credentials as a prescriptivist are beyond question, calls this a superstition. Mr. Volokh cites Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, Oxford English Grammar, and other authorities. In fact, the best that the assertionist came up with was a text that, on Mr. Volohk’s examination, proved to be “a developmental skills text for lower-intermediate and intermediate students of English as a second or foreign language” that says, “Except in very formal writing, a conjunction can also come at the beginning of a sentence”!

The assertionist will not be persuaded by evidence; neither will he be persuaded by the arguments of authorities who contradict what he asserts. We have seen the type elsewhere, among the birthers and the anti-vaccine cranks, for example. The psychology gives rise to the paradox that the need for certainty, for authority, can give rise to beliefs impervious to genuine, evidence-based authority.

And we know the pattern. Some bogus rule is articulated by a teacher, and, because it is an easy-to-remember oversimplification, it sticks through life. Or an editor early in the assertionist’s career lays down some idiosyncratic pronunciamento. Occasionally one of these counterfeit precepts makes its way into a stylebook, like the split-verb nonsense enshrined in The Associated Press Stylebook, mesmerizing the naive, who mistake the stylebook for Heilige Schrift.

We who work as editors are inherently prescriptivist. If we have any sense, we pay attention to what lexicographers and linguists tell us about how the language is being used, and we read widely to form our own sense of the state of things.

But we pick up a text to make it read as it ought to read, for our publication and our audience. We do this recognizing the arbitrariness of our stylebooks, that their conventions are not the same thing as rules of the language. We do this recognizing that our writers, and we ourselves, were taught things that we need to unlearn. We do this recognizing that words and constructions that were deplored thirty years ago may be entirely acceptable today.

And—this is the fourth coordinating conjunction introducing a sentence in this post. Bother you much?—we as moderate and reasonable prescriptivists know that to be effective in our work we need to put some distance between ourselves and the assertionists.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:24 AM | | Comments (17)


And I couldn't agree more!

Ah, now that's a welcome post for putting the argument, which hard-line descriptivists sometimes don't seem to grasp, that an editor is employed to be a prescriptivist. And for adding that he can be a prescriptivist without being a total pillock.

And if you think "assertionist" is a useful synonym for "total pillock", I'm with you.

But I was told this in fourth grade. Thankfully, my seventh grade teacher explained that the rule only applied in elementary school.

That still may be a reasonable compromise.

Excellent point, John, and a distinction too often left unstated. My objections to prescriptivism are indeed primarily objections against assertionism, which explains how you can call yourself a prescriptivist, I can call myself an anti-prescriptivist, and yet we can see eye-to-eye on most points.

In fact, I think there are a lot of other useful distinctions within the descriptivist-prescriptivist spectrum, such as the blanket prescriptivist, the sort who has evidence to back up their claim but is unable to see that, for instance, formal and informal writing are not subject to identical prescriptions. It would allow us to direct our ire in a more controlled manner.

So pull your head out of your assertionist and leave that conjunction alone?

Prof. McI.,

Full marks for the most clever, and fitting 'header', kind sir.

Perhaps the adjective "asinine" would be most aptly descriptive of that quirky band of "assertionists". Not so much in the word's strict definition of being stupid, or silly, but more so in its alternative meaning of being obstinate.

My trusty Webster's NewWorld Dictionary/ 2nd Edition defines "asinine" thusly: "like an ass, having qualities regarding characteristics of asses; stupid, silly, obstinate, etc."

Now most folk are well aware that from the Biblical ass (the one owned by thy neighbor that you're not supposed to covet) ....... onwards, throughout recoded history, this oft domesticated, sturdy equine is known for its abiding obstinate, or stubborn streak, much like those pouty, recalcitrant "assertionist" wordsmiths who cling to their strict prescriptivist prescriptions come hell-or-high-water, despite the persuasive arguments put forth by the less uptight descriptivist camp.

Hmm....... come to think of it, not unlike the current hunkered-down stance of the core leadership of the 'Party of No'--the GOP, who cleave to their tired mantra of "less Federal spending and no new taxes", thus effectively stymieing any potentially viable, new fiscal economic proposals beleaguered Pres. Obama, in good faith, puts forth. But I digress.

@Picky, I like that word "pillock". Could its short form be "pill"? Like...... "Geez, that obnoxious bloke is such a total pill."

Of course "hillock" has its shortened form "hill". Although "hillock", I would gather is a smallish hill, so its derivation is from the root word "hill".

Sounds as if "pillock" could be derived from Old English, and has kind of drifted from common usage, today. Although it could well be a common enough put-down term on your side of the Great Briny.


"The psychology gives rise to the paradox that the need for certainty, for authority, can give rise to beliefs impervious to genuine, evidence-based authority."

I think one of the main shortcomings of prescriptivism is that we don't have a lot of genuine, evidence-based authority. Even authorities like Garner have a tendency to rely on the assertions of other authorities. And the real-world evidence usually comes from corpora of edited writing, which leads to a certain circularity.

And one is led to ask whether there is anything at all that constitutes "a formal rule in English". (Ha, started that one with a conjunction and employed passive voice!) For example, I've always heard that verbs are action words. But "sit" is a verb and it denotes inaction, as in the following: "I sat still all day long." No action there at all.

So are there any formal rules in English?


What's most appalling/amusing about assertionism is that its practitioners will hold their ground with stubborn ferocity no matter how ridiculous their shibboleth. I was at my local video store recently, looking to rent "An Education," and nearly gave up until, by chance, I found it filed under "A." When I mentioned this to the clerks, I was told that while they don't file titles beginning with "the" under "T" or with "a" under "A," both "An Education" and "An Inconvenient Truth" were alphabetised under A because (and I quote) " 'An' is different."

The mind boggles.

Don't think they're quite the same, Alex. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think a pill is an annoying person, whereas a pillock (yes, quite common over here) is a twit, a fool, an idiot. It has a nice dismissive air to it, I think.


Thanks for the "pillock" clarification. Figured it was, indeed, a dismissive term, and I can see the distinction w/ our slang word "pill'------an annoying, pain-in-the-butt type person. (And sadly, there appears to be no real reliable antidote (pill, or otherwise) to eliminate THEM. HA!)

In rereading my earlier post, I see I'd unwittingly typed "recoded history", rather than "recorded" history, when expounding on the ass (the long-eared beastie, that is. HA!) thru historical time. That little bitty "r" appeared to have eluded me.

Now mind you, if you heard a fine (deep) Southern gentleman like say the late, avuncular Civil War historical scholar Shelby Foote pronounce the word "recorded", it would most likely have a nonrhotic, smooth-as-silk flavor to it......... more like "re-co-ded". Just too darn charming, no?

Ain't the English language a hoot?


Context is key, as always.
We must take care as writers and editors.

If I started off my thoughts here with the second sentence, I would have written:
But we must take care as writers and editors.
Context is key.

Somewhere in the above two-sentence thought a caution was needed, I think.
Newspaper hacks, including myself, tend to start off too many sentences with “but” or “and.” I try to remember it. And that’s the “rule” I follow. But not always.

Appropos of today's post, here's a link to today's Non Sequitor cartoon:

Thanks for another enjoyable post I can only agree with!

Prof. McI.,

I know I'm totally off-topic here, but I just want to let folks know, who are presently most willing and able to sign up for the Baltimore Sun's new digital access subscription (like yours truly), that the marketing geniuses at your paper have decided to wait till Monday, October 10th, before any newbies can register. And predictably, of course, they require totally online registration.

I tried, in vain, to sign up today. Didn't see any obvious indication on the online site where to do so, so I then called the Sun's digital subscription number, directly, only to get a slightly snippy, mildly blaisé lady phone 'rep', who basically curtly suggested I should call back on Monday......... and have a nice day. I must say, terrific phone-side manner there......... NOT!

I must add, a great management move, leaving the first day for new digital online subscribers to sign up, to the very day that the online paper officially becomes a limited (or restricted) access publication.

Pardon me, but I've got to go and rinse. I've got a decidedly bitter taste in my mouth, about now. Just sayin'.


Tim: Of course there are formal rules in English: there are plenty of formalisms that will tell you that "Me see she" or "The cat the house into runs" are not English. However, people already know that, so there are no big bux in writing books to say so.

And yet, John Cowan, if three out of four English speakers eventually started saying "me see she" instead of "I see her" then it would become standard English wouldn't it? So is it really a formal rule, or is it merely an overwhelming convention?


Well, it depends what you mean by "formal". It is not a formal rule in the sense that holding your fork in your right hand (in North America) is, one that you have to be taught and people get upset if you violate.

It is a formal rule in the sense that a formal grammar of English (that is, one that specifies what is and what is not part of the English language by the mechanical execution of rules) has rules that assign case to subject and object pronouns, require prepositions and not postpositions, and don't normally place the verb at the end. Other languages have different formal rules that require rather than forbidding these things.

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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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