Arrant Pedantry

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Take My Commas—Please

Most editors are probably familiar with the rule that commas should be used to set off nonrestrictive appositives and that no commas should be used around restrictive appositives. (In Chicago 16, it’s under 6.23.) A restrictive appositive specifies which of a group of possible referents you’re talking about, and it’s thus integral to the sentence. A nonrestrictive appositive simply provides extra information about the thing you’re talking about. Thus you would write My wife, Ruth, (because I only have one wife) but My cousin Steve (because I have multiple cousins, and one is named Steve). The first tells you that my wife’s name is Ruth, and the latter tells you which of my cousins I’m talking about.

Most editors are probably also familiar with the claim that if you leave out the commas after a phrase like “my wife”, the implication is that you’re a polygamist. In one of my editing classes, we would take a few minutes at the start of each class to share bloopers with the rest of the class. One time my professor shared the dedication of a book, which read something like “To my wife Cindy”. Obviously the lack of a comma implies that he must be a polygamist! Isn’t that funny? Everyone had a good laugh.

Except me, that is. I was vaguely annoyed by this alleged blooper, which required a willful misreading of the dedication. There was no real ambiguity here—only an imagined one. If the author had actually meant to imply that he was a polygamist, he would have written something like “To my third wife, Cindy”, though of course he could still write this if he were a serial monogamist.

Usually I find this insistence on commas a little exasperating, but in one instance the other day, the commas were actually wrong. A proofreader had corrected a caption which read “his wife Arete” to “his wife, Arete,” which probably seemed like a safe change to make but which was wrong in this instance—the man referred to in the caption had three wives concurrently. I stetted the change, but it got me thinking about fact-checking and the extent to which it’s an editor’s job to split hairs.

This issue came up repeatedly during a project I worked on last year. It was a large book with a great deal of biographical information in it, and I frequently came across phrases like “Hans’s daughter Ingrid”. Did Hans have more than one daughter, or was she his only daughter? Should it be “Hans’s daughter, Ingrid,” or “Hans’s daughter Ingrid”? And how was I to know?

Pretty quickly I realized just how ridiculous the whole endeavor was. I had neither the time nor the resources to look up World War II–era German citizens in a genealogical database, and I wasn’t about to bombard the author with dozens of requests for him to track down the information either. Ultimately, it was all pretty irrelevant. It simply made no difference to the reader. I decided we were safe just leaving the commas out of such constructions.

And, honestly, I think it’s even safer to leave the commas out when referring to one’s spouse. Polygamy is such a rarity in our culture that it’s usually highlighted in the text, with wording such as “John and Janet, one of his three wives”. Assuming that “my wife Ruth” implies that I have more than one wife is a deliberate flouting of the cooperative principle of communication. This insistence on a narrow, prescribed meaning over the obvious, intended meaning is a problem with many prescriptive rules, but, once again, that’s a topic for another day.

Please note, however, that I’m not saying that anything goes or that you can punctuate however you want as long as the meaning’s clear. In cases where it’s a safe assumption that there’s just one possible referent, or when it doesn’t really matter, the commas can sometimes seem a little fussy and superfluous.

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What Descriptivism Is and Isn’t

A few weeks ago, the New Yorker published what is nominally a review of Henry Hitchings’ book The Language Wars (which I still have not read but have been meaning to) but which was really more of a thinly veiled attack on what its author, Joan Acocella, sees as the moral and intellectual failings of linguistic descriptivism. In what John McIntyre called “a bad week for Joan Acocella,” the whole mess was addressed multiple times by various bloggers and other writers.* I wanted to write about it at the time but was too busy, but then the New Yorker did me a favor by publishing a follow-up, “Inescapably, You’re Judged by Your Language”, which was equally off-base, so I figured that the door was still open.

I suspected from the first paragraph that Acocella’s article was headed for trouble, and the second paragraph quickly confirmed it. For starters, her brief description of the history and nature of English sounds like it’s based more on folklore than fact. A lot of people lived in Great Britain before the Anglo-Saxons arrived, and their linguistic contributions were effectively nil. But that’s relatively small stuff. The real problem is that she doesn’t really understand what descriptivism is, and she doesn’t understand that she doesn’t understand, so she spends the next five pages tilting at windmills.

Acocella says that descriptivists “felt that all we could legitimately do in discussing language was to say what the current practice was.” This statement is far too narrow, and not only because it completely leaves out historical linguistics. As a linguist, I think it’s odd to describe linguistics as merely saying what the current practice is, since it makes it sound as though all linguists study is usage. Do psycholinguists say what the current practice is when they do eye-tracking studies or other psychological experiments? Do phonologists or syntacticians say what the current practice is when they devise abstract systems of ordered rules to describe the phonological or syntactic system of a language? What about experts in translation or first-language acquisition or computational linguistics? Obviously there’s far more to linguistics than simply saying what the current practice is.

But when it does come to describing usage, we linguists love facts and complexity. We’re less interested in declaring what’s correct or incorrect than we are in uncovering all the nitty-gritty details. It is true, though, that many linguists are at least a little antipathetic to prescriptivism, but not without justification. Because we linguists tend to deal in facts, we take a rather dim view of claims about language that don’t appear to be based in fact, and, by extension, of the people who make those claims. And because many prescriptions make assertions that are based in faulty assumptions or spurious facts, some linguists become skeptical or even hostile to the whole enterprise.

But it’s important to note that this hostility is not actually descriptivism. It’s also, in my experience, not nearly as common as a lot of prescriptivists seem to assume. I think most linguists don’t really care about prescriptivism unless they’re dealing with an officious copyeditor on a manuscript. It’s true that some linguists do spend a fair amount of effort attacking prescriptivism in general, but again, this is not actually descriptivism; it’s simply anti-prescriptivism.

Some other linguists (and some prescriptivists) argue for a more empirical basis for prescriptions, but this isn’t actually descriptivism either. As Language Log’s Mark Liberman argued here, it’s just prescribing on the basis of evidence rather than person taste, intuition, tradition, or peevery.

Of course, all of this is not to say that descriptivists don’t believe in rules, despite what the New Yorker writers think. Even the most anti-prescriptivist linguist still believes in rules, but not necessarily the kind that most people think of. Many of the rules that linguists talk about are rather abstract schematics that bear no resemblance to the rules that prescriptivists talk about. For example, here’s a rather simple one, the rule describing intervocalic alveolar flapping (in a nutshell, the process by which a word like latter comes to sound like ladder) in some dialects of English:

intervocalic alveolar flapping

Rules like these constitute the vast bulk of the language, though they’re largely subconscious and unseen, like a sort of linguistic dark matter. The entire canon of prescriptions (my advisor has identified at least 10,000 distinct prescriptive rules in various handbooks, though only a fraction of these are repeated) seems rather peripheral and inconsequential to most linguists, which is another reason why we get annoyed when prescriptivists insist on their importance or identify standard English with them. Despite what most people think, standard English is not really defined by prescriptive rules, which makes it somewhat disingenuous and ironic for prescriptivists to call us hypocrites for writing in standard English.

If there’s anything disingenuous about linguists’ belief in rules, it’s that we’re not always clear about what kinds of rules we’re talking about. It’s easy to say that we believe in the rules of standard English and good communication and whatnot, but we’re often pretty vague about just what exactly those rules are. But that’s probably a topic for another day.

*A roundup of some of the posts on the recent brouhaha:

Cheap Shot“, “A Bad Week for Joan Acocella“, “Daddy, Are Prescriptivists Real?“, and “Unmourned: The Queen’s English Society” by John McIntyre

Rules and Rules” and “A Half Century of Usage Denialism” by Mark Liberman

Descriptivists as Hypocrites (Again)” by Jan Freeman

Ignorant Blathering at The New Yorker”, by Stephen Dodson, aka Languagehat

Re: The Language Wars” and “False Fronts in the Language Wars” by Steven Pinker

The New Yorker versus the Descriptivist Specter” by Ben Zimmer

Speaking Truth about Power” by Nancy Friedman

Sator Resartus” by Ben Yagoda

I’m sure there are others that I’ve missed. If you know of any more, feel free to make note of them in the comments.

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