Arrant Pedantry

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Is Change Okay or Not?

A few weeks ago I got into a bit of an argument with my coworkers in staff meeting. One of them had asked our editorial interns to do a brief presentation on the that/which rule in our staff meeting, and they did. But one of the interns seemed a little unclear on the rule—she said she had learned the rule in her class on modern American usage, but she had also learned that either that or which is technically fine with restrictive clauses. So of course I asked if I could chime in.

I pointed out that the rule—which states that you should always use that for restrictive clauses (except where that is grammatically impermissible, as when the relative pronoun follows a preposition or the demonstrative pronoun that)—is a relatively recent invention and that it didn’t really start to take hold in American usage until the mid-twentieth century. Many writers still don’t follow it, which means that editors have a lot of opportunities to apply the rule, and it’s generally not enforced outside the US.

My coworkers didn’t really like the perceived implication that the rule is bogus and that we shouldn’t worry about it, and one of them countered by saying that it didn’t matter what people did in 1810—the history is interesting, but we should be concerned about what usage is now. After all, the data clearly shows that the that/which rule is being followed in recent publications. And then she deployed an argument I’ve been seeing more and more lately: we all know that language changes, so why can’t we accept this change? (I’ve also heard variations like “Language changes, so why can’t we make it change this way?”)

These are good questions, and I don’t believe that linguists have good answers to them. (Indeed, I’m not even sure that good answers—or at least logically sound answers—are even possible.) In her book Verbal Hygiene, the linguist Deborah Cameron argues that it’s silly for linguists to embrace change from below but to resist change from above. What makes a “natural” change better than an unnatural one? We talk about how language changes, but it’s really people who change language, not language that changes by itself, so is there even a meaningful difference between natural and unnatural change?

Besides, many linguists have embraced certain unnatural changes, such as the movements for gender-neutral and plain language. Why is it okay for us to denounce prescriptivism on the one hand and then turn around and prescribe gender-neutral language on the other?

I haven’t come to a firm conclusion on this myself, but I think it all comes down to whether the alleged problem is in fact a problem and whether the proposed solution is in fact a solution. Does it solve the problem, does it do nothing, or does it simply create a new or different problem?

With gender-specific language, it’s clear that there’s a problem. Even though he is purportedly gender-neutral when its antecedent is indefinite or of unspecified gender, studies have shown that readers are more likely to assume that its antecedent is male. Clearly it’s not really gender-neutral if most people think “male” when they read “he”. Singular they has centuries of use behind it, including use by many great authors, and most people use it naturally and unselfconsciously. It’s not entirely uncontroversial, of course, but acceptance is growing, even among copy editors.

There are some minor thorny issues, like trying to figure out what the gender-neutral forms of freshman or fisherman should be, but writing around these seems like a small price to pay for text that treats people equally.

So what about the that/which rule? What problem does it claim to solve, and does it actually solve it?

The claim is that the rule helps distinguish between restrictive and nonrestrictive relative clauses, which in the abstract sounds like a good thing. But the argument quickly falls apart when you look at how other relative clauses work in English. We don’t need any extra help distinguishing between restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses with who, where, or when—the comma (or, in speech, the intonation) tells you whether a clause is restrictive. The fact that nobody has even recognized ambiguity with restrictive who or where or when as a problem, let alone proposed and implemented a solution, argues against the idea that there’s something wrong with restrictive which. Furthermore, no language I’ve heard of distinguishes between restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses with different pronouns. If it were really an advantage, then we’d expect to see languages all over the world with a grammaticalized distinction between restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses.

I’ve sometimes seen the counterargument that writers don’t always know how to use commas properly, so we can’t trust them to mark whether a clause is restrictive or not; but again, nobody worries about this with other relative clauses. And anyway, if copy editors can always identify when a clause is restrictive and thus know when to change which to that, then it stands to reason that they can also identify when a clause is nonrestrictive and and thus insert the commas if needed. (Though it’s not clear if even the commas are really necessary; in German, even restrictive clauses are set off with commas in writing, so you have to rely on context and common sense to tell you which kind of clause it is.)

It seems, then, that restrictive which is not a real problem at all and that insisting on that for all restrictive clauses doesn’t really accomplish anything. Even though Deborah Cameron criticizes linguists for accepting natural changes and rejecting unnatural ones, she also recognizes that many of the rules that copy editors impose, including the that/which rule, go far beyond what’s necessary for effective communication. She even quotes one scholar as saying that the that/which rule’s “sole virtue . . . is to give copy editors more billable hours.”

Some would argue that changing which to that doesn’t take much time, so there’s really no cost, but I don’t believe that’s true. My own research shows that it’s one of the most common usage or grammar changes that editors make. All those changes add up. I also know from experience that a lot of editors gripe about people not following the rule. That griping has a real effect on people, making them nervous about their abilities with their own native language. Even if you think the that/which rule is useful enough to justify the time it takes to impose it, is it worth making so many people feel self-conscious about their language?

Even if you believe that the that/which rule is an improvement, the fact is that English existed for nearly 1500 years without it, and even now it’s probably safe to say that the vast majority of English speakers have never heard of it. Although corpus data makes it appear as though it’s taken hold in American English, all we can really say from this data is that it has taken hold in edited, published American English, which really means that it’s taken hold among American copy editors. I’m sure some writers have picked the rule up from their English classes or from Word’s grammar checker, but I think it’s safe to say that American English as a whole has not changed—only the most visible portion, published writing, has.

So it’s rather disingenuous to say that the language has changed and thus we should accept the that/which rule as a valid part of Standard English. The argument is entirely circular: editors should enforce the rule because editors have been enforcing the rule now for a few decades. The fact that they have been enforcing the rule rather successfully doesn’t tell us whether they should be enforcing the rule.

Of course, that’s the fundamental problem with all prescriptions—sooner or later, you run into the is–ought problem. That is, it’s logically impossible to derive a prescriptive statement (one that tells you what you ought to do) from a descriptive one (one that states what is). Any statement like “This feature has been in use for centuries, so it’s correct” or “Shakespeare and Jane Austen used this feature, so it’s correct” or even “This feature is used by a majority of speakers today, so it’s correct” is technically a logical fallacy.

While acknowledging that nothing can definitively tell us what usage rules we should or shouldn’t follow, I still think we can come to a general understanding of which rules are worth following and which ones aren’t by looking at several different criteria:

  1. Historical use
  2. Modern use
  3. Oral use
  4. Edited written use
  5. Unedited written use
  6. Use by literary greats
  7. Common use

No single criterion is either necessary or sufficient to prove that a rule should be followed, but by looking at the totality of the usage evidence, we can get a good sense of where the rule came from, who uses it and in which contexts they use it, whether use is increasing or decreasing, and so on. So something might not be correct just because Chaucer or Shakespeare or Austen used it, but if something has been in continuous use for centuries by both literary greats and common people in both speech and writing, then it’s hard to maintain that it’s an error.

And if a rule is only followed in modern edited use, as the that/which rule is (and even then, it’s primarily modern edited American use), then it’s likewise hard to insist that this is a valid rule that all English speakers should be following. Again, the fact that editors have been enforcing a rule doesn’t tell us whether they should. Editors are good at learning and following rules, and we’re often good at pointing out holes or inconsistencies in a text or making it clearer and more readable, but this doesn’t mean that we have any special insight into what the grammar of English relative clauses should be, let alone the authority to insist that everyone follow our proposed changes.

So we can’t—or, at least, I think we shouldn’t—simply say that language has changed in this instance and that therefore we should all follow the rule. Language change is not necessarily good or bad, but it’s important to look at who is changing the language and why. If most people are changing the language in a particular way because they find that change genuinely useful, then it seems like a good thing, or at least a harmless thing. But if the change is being imposed by a small group of disproportionately powerful people for dubious reasons, and if the fact that this group has been successful is then used as evidence that the change is justified, then I think we should be skeptical.

If you want the language to change in a particular way, then the burden of proof is on you to demonstrate why you’re right and four hundred million native speakers are wrong. Until then, I’ll continue to tell our intern that what she learned in class was right: either that or which is fine.

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Scriptivists Revisited

Before I begin: I know—it’s been a terribly, horribly, unforgivably long time since my last post. Part of it is that I’m often busy with grad school and work and family, and part of it is that I’ve been thinking an awful lot lately about prescriptivism and descriptivism and linguists and editors and don’t really know where to begin.

I know that I’ve said some harsh things about prescriptivists before, but I don’t actually hate prescriptivism in general. As I’ve said before, prescriptivism and descriptivism are not really diametrically opposed, as some people believe they are. Stan Carey explores some of the common ground between the two in a recent post, and I think there’s a lot more to be said about the issue.

I think it’s possible to be a descriptivist and prescriptivist simultaneously. In fact, I think it’s difficult if not impossible to fully disentangle the two approaches. The fact is that many or most prescriptive rules are based on observed facts about the language, even though those facts may be incomplete or misunderstood in some way. Very seldom does anyone make up a rule out of whole cloth that bears no resemblance to reality. Rules often arise because someone has observed a change or variation in the language and is seeking to slow or reverse that change (as in insisting that “comprised of” is always an error) or to regularize the variation (as in insisting that “which” be used for nonrestrictive relative clauses and “that” for restrictive ones).

One of my favorite language blogs, Motivated Grammar, declares “Prescriptivism must die!” but to be honest, I’ve never quite been comfortable with that slogan. Now, I love a good debunking of language myths as much as the next guy—and Gabe Doyle does a commendable job of it—but not all prescriptivism is a bad thing. The impulse to identify and fix potential problems with the language is a natural one, and it can be used for both good and ill. Just take a look at the blogs of John E. McIntyre, Bill Walsh, and Jan Freeman for examples of well-informed, sensible language advice. Unfortunately, as linguists and many others know, senseless language advice is all too common.

Linguists often complain about and debunk such bad language advice—and rightly so, in my opinion—but I think in doing so they often make the mistake of dismissing prescriptivism altogether. Too often linguists view prescriptivism as an annoyance to be ignored or as a rival approach that must be quashed, but either way they miss the fact that prescriptivism is a metalinguistic phenomenon worth exploring and understanding. And why is it worth exploring? Because it’s an essential part of how ordinary speakers—and even linguists—use language in their daily lives, whether they realize it or not.

Contrary to what a lot of linguists say, language isn’t really a natural phenomenon—it’s a learned behavior. And as with any other human behavior, we generally strive to make our language match observed standards. Or as Emily Morgan so excellently says in a guest post on Motivated Grammar, “Language is something that we as a community of speakers collectively create and reinvent each time we speak.” She says that this means that language is “inextricably rooted in a descriptive generalization about what that community does,” but it also means that it is rooted in prescriptive notions of language. Because when speakers create and reinvent language, they do so by shaping their language to fit listeners’ expectations.

That is, for the most part, there’s no difference in speakers’ minds between what they should do with language and what they do do with language. They use language the way they do because they feel as though they should, and this in turn reinforces the model that influences everyone else’s behavior. I’ve often reflected on the fact that style guides like The Chicago Manual of Style will refer to dictionaries for spelling issues—thus prescribing how to spell—but these dictionaries simply describe the language found in edited writing. Description and prescription feed each other in an endless loop. This may not be mathematical logic, but it is a sort of logic nonetheless. Philosophers love to say that you can’t derive an ought from an is, and yet people do nonetheless. If you want to fit in with a certain group, then you should behave in a such a way as to be accepted by that group, and that group’s behavior is simply an aggregate of the behaviors of everyone else trying to fit in.

And at this point, linguists are probably thinking, “And people should be left alone to behave the way they wish to behave.” But leaving people alone means letting them decide which behaviors to favor and which to disfavor—that is, which rules to create and enforce. Linguists often criticize those who create and propagate rules, as if such rules are bad simply as a result of their artificiality, but, once again, the truth is that all language is artificial; it doesn’t exist until we make it exist. And if we create it, why should we always be coolly dispassionate about it? Objectivity might be great in the scientific study of language, but why should language users approach language the same way? Why should we favor “natural” or “spontaneous” changes and yet disfavor more conscious changes?

This is something that Deborah Cameron addresses in her book Verbal Hygiene (which I highly, highly recommend)—the notion that “spontaneous” or “natural” changes are okay, while deliberate ones are meddlesome and should be resisted. As Cameron counters, “If you are going to make value judgements at all, then surely there are more important values than spontaneity. How about truth, beauty, logic, utility?” (1995, 20). Of course, linguists generally argue that an awful lot of prescriptions do nothing to create more truth, beauty, logic, or utility, and this is indeed a problem, in my opinion.

But when linguists debunk such spurious prescriptions, they miss something important: people want language advice from experts, and they’re certainly not getting it from linguists. The industry of bad language advice exists partly because the people who arguably know the most about how language really works—the linguists—aren’t at all interested in giving advice on language. Often they take the hands-off attitude exemplified in Robert Hall’s book Leave Your Language Alone, crying, “Linguistics is descriptive, not prescriptive!” But in doing so, linguists are nonetheless injecting themselves into the debate rather than simply observing how people use language. If an objective, hands-off approach is so valuable, then why don’t linguists really take their hands off and leave prescriptivists alone?

I think the answer is that there’s a lot of social value in following language rules, whether or not they are actually sensible. And linguists, being the experts in the field, don’t like ceding any social or intellectual authority to a bunch of people that they view as crackpots and petty tyrants. They chafe at the idea that such ill-informed, superstitious advice—what Language Log calls “prescriptivist poppycock”—can or should have any value at all. It puts informed language users in the position of having to decide whether to follow a stupid rule so as to avoid drawing the ire of some people or to break the rule and thereby look stupid to those people. Arnold Zwicky explores this conundrum in a post titled “Crazies Win.”

Note something interesting at the end of that post: Zwicky concludes by giving his own advice—his own prescription—regarding the issue of split infinitives. Is this a bad thing? No, not at all, because prescriptivism is not the enemy. As John Algeo said in an article in College English, “The problem is not that some of us have prescribed (we have all done so and continue to do so in one way or another); the trouble is that some of us have prescribed such nonsense” (“Linguistic Marys, Linguistic Marthas: The Scope of Language Study,” College English 31, no. 3 [December 1969]: 276). As I’ve said before, the nonsense is abundant. Just look at this awful Reader’s Digest column or this article on a Monster.com site for teachers for a couple recent examples.

Which brings me back to a point I’ve made before: linguists need to be more involved in not just educating the public about language, but in giving people the sensible advice they want. Trying to kill prescriptivism is not the answer to the language wars, and truly leaving language alone is probably a good way to end up with a dead language. Exploring it and trying to figure out how best to use it—this is what keeps language alive and thriving and interesting. And that’s good for prescriptivists and descriptivists alike.

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