So heinous they always to warrant

9 May

You sit down with your coffee, log on at the terminal, pick up something by one of the Tribune’s top operators, and the first thing you see is this:

Picture 20

Oh, don’t be such a stickler about it! You know what he means! Right?

Over at You Don’t Say, John McIntyre is becoming concerned about the terms we use to describe ourselves, and he’s probably right that the p-word will make linguists nervous no matter how much we soften it with adjectives. But deep down, I know what I am, and I’m not ashamed: I’m a prescriptivist.

I don’t think it’s what we’re called that’s the real problem. It’s what we do. We intervene. We step in front of the data. We influence the corpus before it even becomes the corpus. Descriptivists are never going to be entirely comfortable about that.

But look at that sentence. It won’t do.

I’m a prescriptivist, and I’m going to change it.

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9 Responses to “So heinous they always to warrant”

  1. Christian F. May 9, 2013 at 6:04 pm #

    Your implication is that a descriptivist would let that fly. That’s a touch insulting, especially with such an egregious example. I’m a descriptivist, and I’d mark that fragment all up to hell. Based on the straw-man argument in this entry, I’m not persuaded you hold an accurate concept of how a descriptivist thinks or behaves.

    • edlatham May 9, 2013 at 8:44 pm #

      I think we’d all like to straighten that sentence out, and it’s certainly possible to edit it according to sound descriptivist principles. But if you intervene, don’t you cease to become an observer and become a participant? You can’t describe and prescribe at the same time, and surely to edit is always to prescribe?

      • Christian F. May 9, 2013 at 9:29 pm #

        It really depends on the context. If a friend sent that to me in e-mail, I wouldn’t comment on it—maybe it was an error and maybe he really talks that way. E-mail’s a context in which it doesn’t matter. If I were on a newspaper’s staff and that slipped past me, I would expect at least a reprimand. In a case like the above, I don’t think it’s correct in any context and I’m not aware of any U.S. dialect where that’s a standard verbal pattern. Just because one person missed that writing doesn’t mean that it’s a trend, and it doesn’t merit preservation, and it doesn’t “describe” any slice of American-English culture. Maybe I’m not a cookie-cutter descriptivist, but I bear a duality in mind when editing: what the rules are and how people actually speak. Generally I prefer the rules but context and function will color my decisions.

        Where do you draw the line in prescriptivism, for example? I haven’t detected Shakespearean or even Chaucerian English in your style, so there must have been some landmark in the last couple centuries by which you planted your flag and said, “From this point on, English is forbidden to change.” When was that? Do you prefer the style you met while in college or the technique from 20 years before you were born? I was going to refer you to a really interesting article on the misuse of “literally,” but I think you’ve seen it. How do you reconcile with words that have been “misused” for centuries, like the 600-year-old gender-neutral “they”? It’s wrong, it’s not in the rules, but… come on, 600 years of English. How long does it take before it’s a trend?

      • edlatham May 9, 2013 at 10:18 pm #

        I usually plant my flag in a hard-to-define location somewhere ahead of Fowler but behind txtspk. But the point I’m making is, like everyone who ever edits, I choose to plant a flag somewhere. And once you do that, wherever you choose to put it, you start to rule things in and out. The things you delete may be simple errors, or they may be the burgeonings of a new usage. But you do delete them, which means you have ceased observing the corpus and started intervening in it.

        I’m not troubled by singular ‘they’ overmuch, but in answer to your more general point about how long something takes to become a trend – well, if it involves semantics, then a strict prescriptivist would probably say ‘never’. And that’s the really unbridgeable divide in the language wars, isn’t it? Prescriptivists believe semantics always trumps usage; descriptivists believe usage always trumps semantics.

  2. Christian F. May 9, 2013 at 10:48 pm #

    I wouldn’t say “always.” The unbridgeable divide is in making “the enemy always does _____” statements, especially of the variety that may not bear scrutiny. Just because I acknowledge and sometimes allow colloquial usage, that doesn’t mean I’m not precious about the dictionary in my private space. I drill myself on large and obscure vocabulary words, an exercise I find satisfying but which further alienates me from anyone I might speak to. Does that mean they’re stupid? Does that mean I should knock it off? No, in either case.

    My misgiving against drawing a line in the sand is that it could be a mistake. Yes, I’m mandating editorial standards, but they are current standards and they are updated frequently. I monitored with amusement and horror the riot that played itself out on Twitter when AP announced at ACES that “underway” was now one word. Whatever my personal feelings on this, it’s my job to uphold the current standards. And when it’s appropriate, I’ll nail someone’s pelt to the wall on a musty old rule. And when it’s appropriate, I’ll allow t3h k1dz0rz to have their way. Infrequently, and with compunction, but sometimes it’s what’s right.

    My worst-case scenario with prescriptivism is all the damage the Victorians did to grammar. It’s well known that Strunk & White were making stuff up, and that White was even rewriting Strunk once he was too dead to do anything about it. But what linguists will show us is that the Victorians had no foundation upon which to make their claims, no precedent, yet prescriptivists yearn for those disciplined, halcyon times.

    …No, not “no precedent,” I take that back. There was that era when all literature had to be in Latin, and now we have no idea what the English man-on-the-street sounded like. That was a very successful campaign during which the editorial standard also did not reflect reality. I wouldn’t like to see that come around again, however.

    • edlatham May 10, 2013 at 12:24 am #

      As a Brit, I’m not too familiar with the charge sheet against Strunk and White – they don’t feature much over here. (This is Fowler country!) But I actually sneakily admire the Victorian/Edwardian prescriptivists’ chutzpah – and, certainly in Fowler’s case, their passion and engagement. It reminds me of what Churchill said about young people: “As long as you are generous and true, and also fierce, you cannot hurt the world or even seriously distress her.” Substitute “world” for “language”, and I think it fits. So much language change happens by mistake or accident that a few quixotic outbursts from a schoolmaster with a strange gleam in his eye aren’t going to hurt overmuch.

      • Christian F. May 10, 2013 at 3:15 pm #

        Well, one has to admire the ballsy-ness of presuming to mold reality, and then doing it. And I do respect your “this is where I stand” defense of a point in the linguistic timeline: you’ve studied the landscape, you’ve taken other perspectives into consideration, and your decision is well informed. What gets up my nose are these kids who just started college, recently discovered the concept of the “Oxford comma,” and brandish their half-clue like a mallet among a population freshly diagnosed as ignorant. They have no hint of how deep the rabbit-hole runs.

        I’ve recently found your blog, so I apologize for not knowing your geography. I’ve often thought I could greatly benefit in my own career if I were able to just sit in for a week in an English publishing house or periodical office. I’m used to all the arguments people enjoy hashing out here; I’d really enjoy another perspective, especially that of what I consider the source.

        Well, I don’t know how much more I have to contribute. I’ve deeply enjoyed this conversation, it’s been very important to me, and I hope I’ve somewhat mitigated your concept of the moony, laissez-faire descriptivist. Perhaps I’ve only annealed it. But I see Bartleby.com has a copy of the King’s English, so I’ve got some reading to do. Best regards.

  3. Picky May 10, 2013 at 7:36 pm #

    The King’s English is fine, but you need Modern English Usage for the best quality shot of Fowler.

    • edlatham May 10, 2013 at 8:20 pm #

      Agreed! That’s the real dope

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