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.