Arrant Pedantry

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Rules Are Rules

Recently I was involved in an online discussion about the pronunciation of the word the before vowels. Someone wanted to know if it was pronounced /ði/ (“thee”) before vowels only in singing, or if it was a general rule of speech as well. His dad had said it was a rule, but he had never heard it before and wondered if maybe it was more of a convention than a rule. Throughout the conversation, several more people expressed similar opinions—they’d never heard this rule before and they doubted whether it was really a rule at all.

There are a few problems here. First of all, not everybody means exactly the same thing when they talk about rules. It’s like when laymen dismiss evolution because it’s “just a theory.” They forget that gravity is also just a theory. And when laymen talk about linguistic rules, they usually mean prescriptive rules. Prescriptive rules usually state that a particular thing should be done, which typically implies that it often isn’t done.

But when linguists talk about rules, they mean descriptive ones. Think of it this way: if you were going to teach a computer how to speak English fluently, what would it need to know? Well, one tiny little detail that it would need to know is that the word the is pronounced with a schwa (/ðə/) except when it is stressed or followed by a vowel. Nobody needs to be taught this rule, except for non-native speakers, because we all learn it by hearing it when we’re children. And thus it follows that it’s never taught in English class, so it throws some people for a bit of a loop when they heard it called a rule.

But even on the prescriptivist side of things, not all rules are created equal. There are a lot of rules that are generally covered in English classes, and they’re usually taught as simple black-and-white declarations: x is right and y is wrong. When people ask me questions about language, they usually seem to expect answers along these lines. Many issues of grammar and usage are complicated and have no clear right wrong answer. Same with style—open up two different style guides, and you’ll often find two (or more) ways to punctuate, hyphenate, and capitalize. A lot of times these things boil down to issues of formality, context, and personal taste.

Unfortunately, most of us hear language rules expressed as inviolable laws all the way through public school and probably into college. It’s hard to overcome a dozen years or more of education on a subject and start to learn that maybe things aren’t as simple as you’ve been told, that maybe those trusted authorities and gatekeepers of the language, the English teachers, were not always well-informed. But as writing becomes more and more important in modern life, it likewise becomes more important to teach people meaningful, well-founded rules that aren’t two centuries old. It’s time for English class to get educated.

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How I Became a Descriptivist

Believe it or not, I wasn’t always the grammar free-love hippie that I am now. I actually used to be known as quite a grammar nazi. This was back in my early days as an editor (during my first year or two of college) when I was learning lots of rules about grammar and usage and style, but before I had gotten into my major classes in English language, which introduced me to a much more descriptivist approach.

It was a gradual progression, starting with my class in modern American usage. Our textbook was Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, which is a fantastic resource for anyone interested in editing or the English language in general. The class opened my eyes to the complexities of usage issues and made me realize that few issues are as black-and-white as most prescriptivists would have you believe. And this was in a class in the editing minor of all places.

My classes in the English language major did even more to change my opinions about prescriptivism and descriptivism. Classes in Old English and the history of the English language showed me that although the language has changed dramatically over the centuries, it has never fallen into a state of chaos and decay. There has been clear, beautiful, compelling writing in every stage of the language (well, as long as there have been literate Anglo-Saxons, anyway).

But I think the final straw was annoyance with a lot of my fellow editors. Almost none of them seemed interested in doing anything other than following the strictures laid out in style guides and usage manuals (Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage was somehow exempt from reference). And far too often, the changes they made did nothing to improve the clarity, readability, or accuracy of the text. Without any depth of knowledge about the issues, they were left without the ability to make informed judgements about what should be changed.

In fact, I would say that you can’t be a truly great editor unless you learn to approach things from a descriptivist perspective. And in the end, you’re still deciding how the text should be instead of simply talking about how it is, so you haven’t fully left prescriptivism behind. But it will be an informed prescriptivism, based on facts about current and historical usage, with a healthy dose of skepticism towards the rhetoric coming from the more fundamentalist prescriptivists.

And best of all, you’ll find that the sky won’t fall and the language won’t rapidly devolve into caveman grunts just because you stopped correcting all the instances of figurative over to more than. Everybody wins.

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Arrant Pedantry

When you study and work with language for a living, a lot of people naturally assume that you’re some sort of scowling, finger-wagging pedant who is secretly keeping a list of all the grammatical and usage errors they make. It’s difficult to make people understand that you only correct errors when you’re on the clock, and even then you sometimes do it grudgingly because that’s what the style guide says, not necessarily because you believe you’re actually improving the text. It’s even harder to make people understand that what you’re really interested in is understanding how language works, not telling people that they’re using the language wrong or that they’re somehow lacking or inferior because they split an infinitive and dangled a participle.

The problem is that too many people have had bad experiences with just such language pedants, the Miss Thistlebottoms of the world. Now, I have to say that I do believe that there should be standards in the language and that they should be taught to students and followed by writers and editors (when appropriate).

The problem is that the standards in English are too often defined or enforced by people who apparently pull rules out of thin air. These grammatical fussbudgets aren’t interested in a standard based on the usage of educated speakers and writers; rather, they seem to prefer rules that set them apart from the unwashed masses, that give them a reason to judge and condemn. The Elements of Style is their bible, Strunk and White are their prophets, and they sneer down their noses at those not of their faith. The objective, empirical truth of English usage is of no interest to them; they have faith in their false gospel of grammar.

Why do these grammar nazis bother me so? For a lot of reasons, actually. First of all, because a lot of people assume that I’m one of them, and that is simply not true. I was never much of a grammar nazi even when I was new to the field of editing; I favored the spirit of the law over the letter of the law. I still enjoy editing, and I have some very good friends who are excellent editors, but too many people in that profession are either incompetent or tyrannical (or likely both).

Second, I have a strong respect for the truth. Most grammaristos will believe whatever falsehoods they happened to hear in their English classes. If an English teacher tells them that it’s always wrong to split an infinitive, to strand a preposition, or to use they with a singular antecedent, they will unquestioningly accept it as gospel truth, no matter how nonsensical it may be. Any rational person could do a little research and find all three of those “rules” broken by virtually all the finest English writers of the last several centuries. You’d think this would be enough to convince them that such rules are faulty, but the grammar pedants will usually respond with a retort like “Just because Shakespeare made mistakes doesn’t make it alright.” You simply can’t argue with people like that.

And as if those rules weren’t ridiculous enough, there are teachers in the world who tell their students that it’s outright wrong to use the final serial comma or to use the subordinator that when it could be omitted. These sorts of rules only serve to teach students that English is a difficult, frustrating subject that doesn’t make sense. These students then spend the rest of their lives fearing anyone in a position of grammatical authority and believing that many of their natural tendencies in the language are probably wrong.

When people are blindly stupid about grammar and usage, it makes me angry, but when people have been cowed into believing that no matter what they do, they’re always going to get it wrong, it just makes me sad. There’s something seriously wrong with the way English grammar is taught today. At some point the system was taken over by people who favored literary analysis over any sort of teaching of the principles of the language, so what little grammar is being taught is fundamentally flawed because no one has taken the time to learn it properly before they attempt to teach it to others. It’s a subject that’s been highly abused, and too often it’s used for abusive purposes.

Unfortunately, I have no idea what the solution is. I may not be a grammar nazi, but neither am I a grammar anarchist. All I know is that I don’t like the way things are, and I think it’s time for a change.

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