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Rules of the game

Yesterday I suggested that it might be profitable to consider prescriptivists as Platonists and descriptivists as Aristotelians, a conceit that garnered some appreciative comments.

But Janet Byron Anderson, tweeting as @janetbyronander, was not impressed: “ IMO, the dichotomy isn't helpful. A descriptivist who writes and publishes has to respect, guess what, RULES!” and “A prescriptivist who writes, publishes has to respect, guess what, a language's anatomy.”

Not entirely sure of the import of the second tweet, but I don’t plan to guess what. She got me to think about rules, because the people who are shocked whenever I try to be reasonable about language brandish the Rules and accuse me of turning my coat.

But the Rules are not of a piece, and there are different categories, with varying weights, among the things people think of rules:

Unnoticed rules: Unless you are learning English as a second language as an adult, there is a whole network of subterranean rules of grammar that most native speakers never think about. The order of adjectives is an example.

Explicit rules: There are many of them, but they are often complex, with many exceptions and variations. Try to explain subject-verb agreement to a non-native speaker, making clear how “Ham and eggs are my favorite breakfast combination” and “Ham and eggs does not constitute a healthy breakfast” are both grammatically acceptable.

Conventions: Writers in the eighteenth century regularly inserted a comma between the subject and verb in a sentence. We don’t any longer. English orthography is a swamp of maddening conventions. And they, too, are subject to change; we no longer write to-day and to-morrow.

Superstitions: The things Arnold Zwicky calls “zombie rules”—no stranded prepositions, no split infinitives, none always a singular—have been exploded and rejected, not only by the descriptivist tribe, but by a multitude of prescriptivists. And yet, given a ghastly immortality by generations of defective schoolroom teaching, they persist against all reason.

Shibboleths: There are many usages that are not wrong but which people seeking advantage over their fellows preen themselves on avoiding. Ain’t, I suppose, is the classic example, hopefully a comparatively recent addition—though the peevers maintain a vast and ever-increasing store.

House style: These are the narrow conventions that individual publications or publishing houses insist on. They are very specific for legal, medical, scientific, and technical publications. And, of course, there are those sad souls on copy desks who think that the Associated Press Stylebook belongs on the shelf with the statutes of Hammurabi and Justinian.

Individual aesthetic preferences: Everyone has them, and tinpot authorities—managing editors, self-appointed Guardians of the Language, that ilk—love to impose them on the weak and unwary.

So when Ms. Anderson demands that I respect the RULES, I would appreciate knowing to which of these categories she refers.



Posted by John McIntyre at 8:34 AM | | Comments (3)


Blind adherence to "rules" leads to poor results. Decisions based on expediency versus perceived orthodoxy answer nothing; the goal is to achieve balance.

Nice taxonomy. Every single person who has ever cried, "But we need rules or the whole language will degenerate into grunting and pointing!" should be required to read this.

Unh unh. rrrrrr.

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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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