Dumbness with no reward

30 Mar

A couple of weeks ago over at John McIntyre’s unmissable blog You Don’t Say, a discussion was in full flow about the perennial clash between traditional prescriptivist rule-making and modern descriptivist linguistics in formal English, and I wrote this in the comments:

“… frankly, often the best service you can perform for a writer is to make the text as unobjectionable as possible to sticklers – because then they have nothing to focus on but the news, or the message, in the piece. Sticklers are only really a problem to descriptivists; to most readers – and surprisingly many professional writers – their ‘expertise’ remains unquestioned.”

That remark caused a bit of surprise; in fact, I was quite surprised to find myself writing it. After all, I understand that many of the things sticklers care about most are based in either nostalgia or superstition: I know that  “whom” is dying out, that “decimate” no longer means what the Romans used it to mean, and that “which” and “that” are more interchangeable than you might think. What am I doing advocating the acceptance of “rules” that I know to be either moribund or baseless?

In one episode of The West Wing, Toby is stage-managing a controversial government appointment to try to push the unconstitutionality of school prayer up the agenda. He “wants the debate”. Chief of staff Leo, on whom this news is sprung unexpectedly, very much does not. He has a huge number of policy problems to juggle and no time for this. “I’ll take the meetings,” Toby offers. “You’re damn right,” replies Leo crisply. “You’ll take the meetings, starting with Republican leadership, and you’ll gauge exactly the volume of dumbness with no reward we can expect.”

And that’s the problem: dumbness with no reward. As an editor, if you choose to advance a progressive linguistics agenda at work, you’ll be doing so under the byline of someone who is both far less certain of the intellectual terrain, and far less interested in the issue, than you are. The sticklers who write in will write not to you, but to the the reporter in question or the readers’ editor. The former may feel they ought to reply, and the latter is probably obliged to; but neither of them is likely to know quite what to say.

They will come to you for advice, but your impassioned explanation will be transcribed into an email by an uncertain third party who probably half-believes the stickler’s strictures – after all, they remember being taught these “rules” too. The stickler, in turn, may write promptly back, having not given an inch, requiring further consultations and a further response. Time that could be much better spent on reporting, or addressing substantive readers’ complaints, starts to trickle away. And if this debate happens to take place publicly, in the comments section on the website, the focus of the story becomes the perceived standard of its English and its point is totally lost.

And that can be so easily avoided. Because sticklers’ distinctions are usually agonisingly correct rather than confusing or ungrammatical, they can usually be adopted with no harm to the text whatsoever. It takes seconds to change “which” to “that”, or “who” to “whom”, and choose a different word for “decimate”.

You might justify this position by saying that traditional English is the most persuasive and most widely accepted register for formal news and debate, and it is. You might try to argue that, because the vast majority of language change happens by mistake, making distinctions like these is no more than expressing a cultural preference for one set of misconceptions over another. But by far the best reason for observing traditional prescriptivist rules is the amount of time and hassle you can save your colleagues.

Journalism is written and edited (and often read) at speed and under pressure. Every day, it generates a startling amount of feedback, anger and unintended consequences. There’s no point in looking for more distractions than you already have, and certainly no point in manufacturing more for other people. Perfection is always the goal. But sometimes, if the copy’s clean, correct and trouble-free and it’s 10 minutes past deadline, that’s a good day’s work done. You can always revolutionise the popular understanding of grammar tomorrow, if there’s time.

And besides, if you’ve caught all the sticklers’ traps, the silence is blissful.


11 Responses to “Dumbness with no reward”

  1. Picky April 2, 2013 at 1:54 pm #

    I think there is much in what in what you say. But then a million or so years ago I was responsible for replying to those sticklers’ letters, and it was painful.

    On the other hand, if you haven’t got time to deal with the fallout, how the heck have you got time to write this stuff?

    • edlatham April 2, 2013 at 3:35 pm #

      Ah, this is the kind of time you can free up if you cravenly knuckle under to sticklers!

  2. alexmccrae1546 April 2, 2013 at 4:00 pm #

    A twofold congrats— firstly, to you Mr. Latham on launching your very own language usage site, and secondly to Sir Picky for being your first respondent, who clearly does not suffer “sticklers” gladly.

    I wish you much success, Ed.

  3. Carol Saller April 2, 2013 at 6:10 pm #

    Congratulations on the new blog–I certainly appreciate today’s thoughts. I agree with your strategy in general, but I also like the idea of keeping up with online discussions of zombie rules and skunked words so as to be aware when the tipping point is reached and it’s safe to flaut. In this way editors help move things along bit by bit.

    • edlatham April 2, 2013 at 6:23 pm #

      Thank you, Carol. Yes, I agree – you have to know exactly what you’re allowing through, and why you’ve decided to allow it.


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