Arrant Pedantry

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The Value of Prescriptivism

Last week I asked rather skeptically whether prescriptivism had moral worth. John McIntyre was interested by my question and musing in the last paragraph, and he took up the question (quite admirably, as always) and responded with his own thoughts on prescriptivism. What I see is in his post is neither a coherent principle nor an innately moral argument, as Hart argued, but rather a set of sometimes-contradictory principles mixed with personal taste—and I think that’s okay.

Even Hart’s coherent principle is far from coherent when you break it down. The “clarity, precision, subtlety, nuance, and poetic richness” that he touts are really a bundle of conflicting goals. Clear wording may come at the expense of precision, subtlety, and nuance. Subtlety may not be very clear or precise. And so on. And even if these are all worthy goals, there may be many more that are missing.

McIntyre notes several more goals for practical prescriptivists like editors, including effectiveness, respect for an author’s voice, consistency with a set house style, and consideration of reader reactions, which is a quagmire in its own right. As McIntyre notes, some readers may have fits when they see sentence-disjunct “hopefully”, while other readers may find workarounds like “it is to be hoped that” to be stilted.

Of course, any appeal to the preferences of the reader (which is, in a way, more of a construct than a real entity) still requires decision making: which readers are you appealing to? Many of those who give usage advice seem to defer to the sticklers and pedants, even when it can be shown that they’re pretty clearly wrong or at least holding to outdated and somewhat silly notions. Grammar Girl, for example, guides readers through the arguments for and against “hopefully”, repeatedly saying that she hopes it becomes acceptable someday (note how carefully she avoids using “hopefully” herself, even though she claims to support it) but ultimately shies away from the usage, saying that you should avoid it for now because it’s not acceptable yet. (I’ll write about the strange reasoning presented here some other time.)

But whether or not you give in to the pedants and cranks who write angry letters to lecture you on split infinitives and stranded prepositions, it’s still clear that there’s value in considering the reader’s wishes while writing and editing. The author wants to communicate something to an audience; the audience presumably wants to receive that communication. It’s in both parties’ best interests if that communication goes off without a hitch, which is where prescriptivism can come in.

As McIntyre already said, this doesn’t give you an instant answer to every question, it can give you some methods of gauging roughly how acceptable certain words or constructions are. Ben Yagoda provides his own “somewhat arbitrary metric” for deciding when to fight for a traditional meaning and when to let it go. But the key word here is “arbitrary”; there is no absolute truth in usage, no clear, authoritative source to which you can appeal to solve these questions.

Nevertheless, I believe the prescriptive motivation—the desire to make our language as good as it can be—is, at its core, a healthy one. It leads us to strive for clear and effective communication. It leads us to seek out good language to use as a model. And it slows language change and helps to ensure that writing will be more understandable to audiences that are removed spatially and temporally. But when you try to turn this into a coherent principle to instruct writers on individual points of usage, like transpire or aggravate or enormity, well, then you start running into trouble, because that approach favors fiat over reason and evidence. But I think that an interest in clear and effective language, tempered with a healthy dose of facts and an acknowledgement that the real truth is often messy, can be a boon to all involved.

2 Responses to The Value of Prescriptivism

  1. Marc Leavitt says:

    Jonathan:
    All of us in the newspaper game(and related fields) know what the shibboleths are – you listed some of trhem in your post. Of course we have to adhere to house style and honor the author’s voice and keep the readership in mind. I’m fully in favor of following the REASONABLE rules of proper English. Otherwise I’d be writing ad copy. The issue is almost a non-issue – or should be. The silly rules laid down from Dryden and Lowth on through Miss Grundy in fourth grade have to be relegated to the nether regions. Reasonable people know that it doesn’t ALWAYS look right to throw a preposition at the end of a sentence, and any reasonable person should realize that sentence adverbs like “hopefully” are here to stay until the vox populi says otherwise. I just read the BBC’s latest article on linguistic sinning in Old blighty, with more than 1,200 rants about Americanisms in British English. The ranters are the same silly people who insist on following the make-believe rules of Dryden and Lowth et al.Peevery isn’t as bad as thievery, just more boring.

  2. Jonathon says:

    The frustrating thing about the rules is that they continue to have an amazing power to afflict us, even after we’ve learned that they’re bunk. Many people would rather yield to an unreasonable rule than offend a potential unreasonable reader. And of course everyone has different ideas about what the reasonable rules are.

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