Happy anniversary

3 Apr

Ten Minutes Past Deadline is five! I’d like to say “five today”, but in fact it was five last Friday: the first post on this site went up on 30 March 2013.

Although many subjects have attracted its attention, including baseball, cartoons and the rise of IMDb’s formidable robot copydesk, this blog has all too frequently returned to the subject that first inspired it: prescriptivism and formal English. The first post that ever appeared here arose from years of reading two inspiring blogs – You Don’t Say and HeadsUp – and, through them, becoming increasingly engaged with editing’s big issues: ethics, grammar, ambiguity, statistics, and, above all, language change.

Written in response to a debate on how forward-thinking one should be when editing someone else’s writing, that post was motivated by a slightly defensive sense that although formal English was indefensible, it was somehow important too: and that, even though the case against prescriptivist crotchets was unanswerable, deadline was not the right moment to get into an argument with a writer over notional agreement.

Five years later, that debate is as hard to resolve as ever, but the advice, tips and ideas readers have offered over that time have helped move the blog forward immeasurably. Thank you to everyone who’s read, commented, shared, liked, quoted, linked to, disagreed with and retweeted it over the past half-decade. And, by way of celebration, here is a distillation of what Ten Minutes Past Deadline now thinks it thinks (at least currently) about formal English:

 

Formal English is absurd, but unmistakable

There is no academic justification for the ban on split infinitives, or the stricture that forbids qualifying a sentence with “hopefully”, or the objection to ending a sentence with a preposition, or for many of the other rules taught or followed as being “good English”. And yet, taken together, those rules have come to create a recognisable register: a tone, a rhetoric, a voice. However baseless its antecedents, when formal English is spoken, everyone recognises it for what it is: the language in which power speaks and expects to be addressed.

 

Formal English is not imposed from above

The English language has no central authority, not even an ineffectual one like the Academie Française. Everyone who has tried to suggest usage changes, or best practice, or new words, has had to do so from a position as a private citizen – or, at best, as part of a self-appointed body. None of them have had the power to compel correct usage. The mechanism by which, say, a language commentator’s suggestion becomes a teaching point in primary-school English, which is then carried forward into the solicitors’ letters and leading articles of a generation of adults, is an achievement of influence, not enforcement. Prescriptivism in English has to win hearts and minds; there is no state imprimatur to reinforce the message. Which leads us to a surprising conclusion:

 

Formal English is a descriptivist phenomenon

In Modern English Usage, Fowler suggested dozens of improvements to written English, some of which caught on: some, but not all. In the 1930s, a BBC committee invented dozens of words to describe new phenomena in modern life, some of which caught on: some, but not all. Proposing, it appears, is not enough: every piece of language change, from the accidental to the intentional, has to pass the test of usage.

Some of Fowler’s ideas were terrible, but some – such as his forgotten proposals for punctuating parentheses – were just as useful as his “which/that” distinction, which has become a staple of legal English. Similarly, the BBC committee failed in its primary task of inventing a new word for one who watches television (the corporation rejected  “auralooker” and went for “viewer”), but it did successfully popularise the term “roundabout” for the road junction. The unpredictability of these successes and failures suggests that prescription, just like natural language change, is subject to the mysterious processes of acceptance by which English is ultimately formed. That means many prescriptivist initiatives are doomed to failure: but it does suggest that the ones that have survived to create what we now call “formal English” have passed the stern test of public approval.

Advertisements

4 Responses to “Happy anniversary”

  1. Picky April 3, 2018 at 1:07 pm #

    There you go again, all reasonableness. Can’t you splutter angrily a bit more, like on the one hand John Humphrys or on the other Professor Pullum?

    Happy birthday!

    • edlatham April 3, 2018 at 1:24 pm #

      Thank you! I’m working on my harrumph!

  2. Steve Dunham April 6, 2018 at 5:15 pm #

    Don’t you mean “beginning a sentence with a conjunction”? I’m wondering whether you meant that or.

    • edlatham April 6, 2018 at 7:04 pm #

      Ooh good point – I meant ending a sentence with a *preposition*! Editing now …

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: