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Nation shall prescribe unto nation

11 Jul

‘I’d have gone for “visionnaire” myself. I’m glad we didn’t get “auralooker”:

Historian Nick Kapur’s fascinating Twitter thread about the BBC’s Advisory Committee On Spoken English and its influence on modern speech reveals just how close we came to referring to anticyclones as “halcyons”, but also offers an illuminating insight into what prescription in language really means.

Because of course, there is not one kind of linguistic prescriptivism: there are two. One opposes all language change and all neologism, and attempts to conserve current norms as an eternal standard. But the other seeks to deliberately modify language: not to reject new words, but to invent them, and to influence speech and writing to go in new directions – such as the campaigns to popularise Ms and Mx as neutral  honorifics. It is this second kind of prescriptivism, which one might call activist or progressive prescriptivism, that Kapur is tweeting about here.

The story begins, he relates, in 1926, when Lord Reith sets up a committee to help resolve one of the many problems a pioneer national broadcaster has to solve: how should you pronounce certain words on air? (This group, the Advisory Committee On Spoken English, still exists today, doing very similar work to help BBC broadcasters). Then in 1935, faced with the question of what to call users of the new media of the day – television –  a new sub-committee was set up, not just to advise on pronouncing words, but to invent some new ones. Led by the Anglo-American man of letters Logan Pearsall Smith – an eager language reformer – the Sub-Committee on Words generated the alternatives listed above to start the debate (although it eventually rejected all of them and recommended “televiewer”, subsequently shortened to “viewer”.)

After that, the sub-committee remained active, and widened its remit to mass-produce new words for broadcast far beyond the new industry’s immediate needs, eventually becoming so extravagant and implausible in its inventions that an exasperated chairman of governors closed it down in 1937. But by then it had created several terms – “roundabout” for the road junction, “serviceman” for members of all the armed forces, “art researcher/art historian” to replace the German word “kunstforscher” – that are now commonplace in modern English.

The impression descriptivist scholarship frequently gives is that language is an unknowable stew of errors, localisms, homophone confusions and misreadings, prone to unpredictable change. The emphasis, or the cultural preference, often seems to be bestowed on the unwilled variations to language, not the willed ones. But Kapur reminds us that English is also highly susceptible to the approaches of those who have a design on it, from Edwardian grammarians like Fowler to equalities campaigners to spelling reformers like McCormick at the Chicago Tribune. There are words and conventions in many registers of modern English that were created deliberately by people who wanted to see them catch on and took the opportunity to make it happen.

Sometimes, of course, prescriptivism is institutional, and benefits from that privilege. It might be justifiably argued that the BBC’s committee, as a quasi-official body proposing usage for the nation’s only broadcaster, was in a very strong position to succeed, particularly as it was inventing terms for then-unnamed phenomena. But the Academie Française, which is attempting to do for French today almost exactly what the BBC committee did for English in the 1930s – and from a similarly state-sanctioned position – is greeted with widespread indifference and derision for its efforts.

And in any case, innovative prescription does not need an official platform to succeed. This blog has discussed at length the extent to which Fowler’s suggestions have influenced modern formal and legal English, but Fowler himself was no state official, nor did his books bear any government imprimatur (although Churchill is said to have recommended Modern English Usage to his staff after it came out). His books were a success because, then as now, there is a sustained public appetite for advice on how to engage with formal English. (Indeed, given the existence of a generation of professional linguists who consider it their role to observe rather than advise, the field for such material is possibly clearer today than it was then.)

This is not to say the process is easy: frequently, big innovations just don’t catch on.  There is no doubt that some of the committee’s ideas, like some of Fowler’s, are much worse than others: for example, one member apparently felt it desirable to create a shorter term for “inferiority complex” (“inflex”), and another proposed “yulery” as a collective term for Christmas festivities. The point is not that Fowler or the committee were always “right” about what they proposed; the point is – at least sometimes – that they were successful.

Usage remains the timeless, and the only, judge of current English. But usage does not simply adjudicate on terms that have risen up unbidden from the demos; it also sits in judgment on peri-statal prescriptions and private linguistic entrepreneurialism. Due process is afforded to all new words, whether they are accidents or designs. Linguists say that language is a democracy, and it is: a democracy in which, among other things, anyone is free to prescribe and see what happens.

The progressive prescriptivist

23 Jun

If you ever wondered what “Mx” meant – as in the courtesy title, “Mx Pat Smith” – you can now look it up. Stan Carey at Sentence First writes that the dictionary for which he works, Macmillan, has created an entry for it for the first time.

Mx is like Ms, but whereas Ms is a title that is non-specific about marital status, Mx is a title that is non-specific about sex. It’s intended for trans people, intersex people and others who would prefer not to be specific, at least in formal correspondence, about gender.

Although it’s completely new to me, Mx appears to have been invented, according to a well-researched post by Nat Titman, as long ago as the late 1970s. The lexicographer Jonathan Dent attributes its first use to a US magazine in 1977, and observes: “The early proponents of the term seem to have had gender politics as their central concern [and] saw the title as one which could sidestep the perceived sexism of the traditional ‘Mr’, ‘Mrs’ and ‘Miss’.”

But the key here is that, whoever invented it and whenever it happened, it was invented: that is to say, it was consciously proposed as a new word in the hope of introducing it into the language. Mx has no roots in Middle English, nor was it naturally appropriated from 18th-century Persian. It is a suggestion, a proposal, an innovation; in other words, it is prescriptivist.

In its identification of a point of weakness in the language and its determination to do something about it, it is almost Fowlerian in spirit; indeed, it calls to mind Fowler’s quote in Modern English Usage:

What grammarians say should be has perhaps less influence on what shall be than even the most modest of them realize; usage evolves itself little disturbed by their likes and dislikes. And yet the temptation to show how better use might have been made of the material to hand is sometimes irresistible.

Exactly the same was true, 114 years ago, about Ms. As the linguist Ben Zimmer notes in the New York Times, when the term was proposed, it too was an innovation – another artificial construct designed to bridge an obvious gap in the language. Just a few years after the publication of Fowler’s Modern English Usage, an anonymous resident of Massachusetts wrote in the Springfield Sunday Republican:

There is a void in the English language which, with some diffidence, we undertake to fill … Every one has been put in an embarrassing position by ignorance of the status of some woman. To call a maiden Mrs. is only a shade worse than to insult a matron with the inferior title Miss.

And so he went on to propose the use of Ms as a simple, embarrassment-avoiding alternative: “For oral use it might be rendered as ‘Mizz,’ which would be a close parallel to the practice long universal in many bucolic regions, where a slurred Mis’ does duty for Miss and Mrs. alike.”

A few years ago, there was an interesting discussion on You Don’t Say about the politics of linguistics: specifically, whether prescriptivists were rightwing and descriptivists leftwing. Left-of-centre commentators pointed out that prescriptivists spent much of their time being explicitly conservative: defending old usages and deriding new ones. Right-of-centre commentators objected to the what they saw as the hypocrisy of political correctness, which they perceived as the “prescriptivism of the left”. What the invention of Mx, and the success of Ms, suggest is that the linguistic-political divide is more complex than simple left-and-right.

In the decades that followed the proposal of “Ms”, the term provoked political debate. It was mocked as modish, or defended as equitable: a classic left-right disagreement. But that debate did not take place between prescriptivists and descriptivists; it happened between two different schools of prescriptivism, conservative and progressive – one group who wanted to preserve the language, the other who wanted to improve it. Engineering change and enforcing traditions are both equally alien to descriptivism, which, in its purest form, simply observes popularity and usage regardless of antecedents.

The procedure by which words get into a dictionary, of course, remains a descriptivist one: Macmillan would not have considered Mx for inclusion simply on the basis of one magazine editor’s decision. Usage, and evidence of usage, is the only measure of success or failure for an innovation. Prescriptivism proposes, descriptivism disposes.

But that process is not as easily projected onto the left-versus-right political map as it might seem – for example, modern linguistics might have waited indefinitely for a non-sexist alternative to “chairman” if a progressive prescriptivist had not suggested “chair”. Descriptivism can be laissez-faire as well as inclusive; prescriptivists can innovate as much as they preserve.

The uses of formality

6 Mar
Photograph: Acción Ortográfica Quito via the Guardian

Photograph: Acción Ortográfica Quito via the Guardian

If all prescriptivists were this cool, descriptivism wouldn’t stand a chance:

In the dead of night, two men steal through the streets of Quito armed with spray cans and a zeal for reform. They are not political activists or revolutionaries: they are radical grammar pedants on a mission to correctly punctuate Ecuador’s graffiti.

Adding accents, inserting commas and placing question marks at the beginning and end of interrogative sentences scrawled on the city’s walls, the vigilante editors have intervened repeatedly over the past three months to expose the orthographic shortcomings of would-be poets, forlorn lovers and anti-government campaigners.

The first images of this guerrilla nitpicking exploded across social networks in December, but despite their global notoriety, the group – Acción Ortográfica Quito – have kept their identities secret and have never given a media interview until now.

Imagine swooping through the neon-lit urban landscape with a spray can and that firm a grasp of Spanish diacritical marks. Imagine graffitising the graffiti of protest itself. Imagine just belonging to an organisation called “Acción Ortográfica”. These are lawyers with punctuation-derived street names in their thirties, on a mission to educate and entertain – and judging by the photograph at the top of the page, with an attitude to ellipses that’s almost as hostile as IMDb’s.

And yet … in the light of the just-departed National Grammar Day, and its gleeful celebration of nitpicking, this also feels like going a little bit too far. Shorn of the wit and the big-city coolness, is this actually any better than Lynne Truss’s grumpy attempts to assault greengrocer’s signs with a felt-tip pen?

Mindful of the tendency for prescriptivist festivities to get out of hand at this time of year, John McIntyre at You Don’t Say wrote this on the eve of National Grammar Day:

Item:  Do not aspire to be a grammar Nazi, and don’t indulge people who use the term. Nazis are not funny unless you are Jerry Seinfeld or Mel Brooks. You are not Jerry Seinfeld or Mel Brooks …

Item: It is not your job to correct misused apostrophes or other errors in signage. Resist the temptation … keep in mind that English has many dialects, each with distinctive properties. Let a hundred flowers bloom.

And that’s the problem. There are, as descriptivists are fond of saying, “many voices”, of which formal English is only one. Indeed, it’s more than one: as You Don’t Say goes on to observe: “Just as there is no one English but a variety of dialects, there is not even one standard written American English, but a spectrum.” Graffiti is written English, but not formal English. It doesn’t need to be entirely correct.

Other things, however, do.

Very formal English – the kind found in our venerated 18th and 19th-century usage guides – is little more than a collection of antiquated grammar, mistakes, Latinate superstitions and quixotic innovations. But however dubious its antecedents – and they are often shaky or even baseless – it has been, and remains, the English of government, the police, the corporate attorney: the voice of those who have power to command. Fowler’s suggestion on “which” and “that” in restrictive clauses has found its way into more than a dozen state legislature drafting manuals. Copies of Strunk and White are, or were, sent out to those newly admitted to the bar of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Unsplitting infinitives,  moving prepositions away from the end of the sentence, using “whom” in the right place: in the most formal circumstances, these are not just superstitious efforts at “correctness”, but something more: they are a raising of the rhetorical stakes, an appropriation of the register in which the most serious matters are discussed. Relationship therapists teach something called “tone-matching” to help people who struggle to get their point across in arguments. If someone is polite, you are polite. If someone becomes curt, you become curt. If someone raises their voice, you raise it too – not more, not less, but exactly the same amount.

The capacity to detect and respond to changes of tone is an essential part of doing well in disputes, and the same applies to writing as it does in speech. Litigators don’t use slang, and neither do leader writers. The register they use might crumble to dust on close inspection of its antecedents, but it still sends a powerful signal: that the matter is grave, and that gravity is expected in reply.

And this is why people seek guidance from editors, or Fowler, or Strunk and White. Not for advice on informal English: nobody needs help with that. They need help with formal English: they need their tone to match the tone of their interlocutor.  They need to sound as forbidding to the solicitor as the solicitor sounds to them, or as authoritative and competent to a new employer as a successful candidate should.

So, if a friend applying for a job asks you whether it should be “whom” in the sentence “My former employer was Joe Dough & Co, from whom you may obtain references”, the correct answer is not “there are many voices”; the correct answer, this time, is “yes”. In this context, in this tone, at this stage in the relationship, formality is advisable and “whom” is the correct choice. What is nitpicking and tin-eared in one register is resonant and appropriate in another.  As editors, we can weigh audience, tone, register, changing patterns of usage, and still come to a conclusion. We can make those calculations effortlessly: that is why they are asking us.

In that sense, the zombie rules of the 18th and 19th century prescriptivists are almost beyond criticism. They have become embedded in the law and the classroom, and in a generation of usage manuals that have still not been superseded in the common imagination. Like so much language change, they were born out of misapprehension and error, and yet have become part of English nonetheless; they are now as much an inexplicable descriptivist phenomenon as surfer slang or the changing meaning of “iconic”. In an English of many voices, formality is a voice too.

Just a dash

29 Aug

I know, I know: I keep going on about this. And the ship sailed a long time ago. But look at this:

Picture 70

It’s a perfect example – the best I’ve ever seen  – of when a Fowler comma is not only desirable but necessary.

Fowler, as we have discussed before, took a strict line on parentheses in Modern English Usage, advising as follows:

1. Parentheses may be indicated in any one of four ways: by square brackets, by round brackets, by dashes, and by commas …

2. After the second bracket or dash any stop that would have been used if the brackets or dashes and their contents had not been there should still be used.

Unlike his proposal for separating the use of “which” and “that”, which has been widely applied and misapplied in formal English, this idea – that if you add a dashed parenthesis at the end of a subordinate clause, you must still retain the closing comma of the clause – has been totally disregarded. That’s not surprising: it looks very peculiar, however you arrange it – even like this –, when you include every mark.

But look at the sentence above, describing the way that reality show Educating Yorkshire was filmed. The dashed parenthesis in the middle, “64 automatic cameras and microphones rather than intrusive film crews”, looks normal. But, in fact, it has been placed in the middle of a list, and inserting it has caused one of the delimiting commas to disappear.

So when you parse the sentence, you go wrong. The standard editor’s test is that you should be able to lift a parenthetical clause out of a sentence without affecting the syntax or grammar of what’s left, and this apparently passes with flying colours:

The key to the programme is the use of the fixed rigs […] retaining the trust of teachers.

That’s clear: the automatic filming system wins teachers’ confidence by not having disruptive outsiders in the classroom.

But that’s not what it means. It was only when I got to the apparently unnecessary comma after “teachers”, and thought it looked suspiciously like an Oxford comma, that I realised: this isn’t a two-part list, it’s a three-part list. There are three things that are key to the programme’s success: (i) using fixed rigs; (ii) retaining the trust of teachers, and (iii) selecting the right school. There is no causal relationship between the teachers’ trust and the fixed rigs. The insertion of the dashed parenthetical clause has caused the first and second points to merge into one, because we don’t put commas after dashes.

The fix is simple, of course: put the parenthetical clause into brackets.

The key to the programme is the use of the fixed rigs (64 automatic cameras and microphones rather than intrusive film crews), retaining the trust of teachers, and selecting the right school.

But that only works because it is acceptable to punctuate after a closing bracket mark. If you take the comma out, you’re back to the original, mistaken reading. Curiously, we can punctuate after some parenthetical marks but not others.

Too late to do anything about that, of course; if Fowler’s suggestion didn’t catch on in 1926, it’s not going to catch on now. But accidental ambiguities like that haunts the lives of sub-editors.  It’s nice to know that they alarmed Fowler too.

Dashed if I won’t

10 Sep

Remember the discussion a few months ago about Fowler’s commas-and-dashes-together idea – his insistence that a subordinate clause should always retain its closing comma, even if it ended with a parenthesis? Remember how it seemed unlikely that it would ever come up? Well, it’s just come up:

Picture 31

And, for the first time in an already incident-packed career, I want to put a comma straight after a dash:

”– though the IMF’s position has softened somewhat –, to protect themselves …”.

There are several places in the sentence where you could plug in the final clause. If you’re reading lazily and prepared to allow “the IMF” to be plural, you can almost read straight through the second dash without noticing it. An even likelier candidate is after the first dash – the Lure of Low Attachment again – until you realise, seven or eight words into the last clause, that it’s not really parsing. The correct place is high up in the sentence, after “controls” – and I think a Fowler comma after the dash would send you straight back there, as surely as a GOSUB/RETURN command would in Basic.

Of course, you could avoid any ambiguity by intervening – breaking it up into two sentences or repunctuating extensively, making a careful but denatured version of the original with the same ingredients. But I like this sentence: the rhythm, the length, the nested subordinates. One little extra punctuation mark would make it foolproof.

Except that the Fowler comma never caught on – never came remotely close to emulating the success of his which/that initiative for restrictive and non-restrictive clauses. No modern reader would understand why it was there if you put it in;  you would cite Modern English Usage in vain to the puzzled audience, and even, probably, the writer.

But in a day when hands-off-the-wheel descriptivism is the intellectual consensus – in a time when “literally” is up on the ramp being safely drained of semantic coherence like a junkyard car being emptied of oil – it’s nice to know that, in another linguistics era, somebody cared. Cared enough to want to intervene; confident, or quixotic, enough to believe that things could actually be changed if you wrote with conviction and won hearts and minds. Jonathon Owen at Arrant Pedantry has been researching how professional editors can have an effect on the language, just as youth movements and technology do, if enough people are persuaded of the need for regularisation or clarity. And really, how else does language ever change except when a group of people are persuaded to adopt a usage that they find attractive?

Not this time, though. The only choice here is to trust the reader, or worry about the attachment ambiguity and pull it all to pieces for safety.

I’m going to leave it the way it is. I like it.

Restriction and the marsupial

27 Aug

Somewhat in the manner of Oscar Wilde, I recently spent the afternoon debating whether or not to put a comma in this:


You can see where I mean, can’t you? After “dingo”. Yes: it’s our old friend the restrictive clause. If you put a comma in, it clearly means George Stubbs never saw the dingo or the kangaroo before having to paint them. If you leave it out, as here, it probably means he saw the kangaroo but not the dingo, unless you’re generously inclined to attach the restrictive clause to both animals. But I don’t think that’s the obvious reading. The indefinite article before “dingo” isolates it from “kangaroo” with its definite article and encourages you to succumb to what the linguist Arnold Zwicky calls the Lure of Low Attachment – that is, instinctively reading a phrase as modifying only the thing closest to it, and not things further back (or “higher up”) in the sentence.

The “which” doesn’t help: “which” doesn’t automatically signal the start of a non-restrictive clause, whatever the state of Texas might tell you. Only a comma can do that. So what’s the right answer? It’s hard to say, dammit:


Ah, he did see the kangaroo. So we don’t need the comma. Well, hang on. Does a dead skin count? I suppose it helped for colouration and texture. Elsewhere in the piece, it is suggested that Stubbs might have even inflated the skin into a kind of marsupial balloon to paint from (not an image that’s easily erased from the mind). On the other hand, you might well argue, a skin on its own doesn’t remotely qualify as “the flesh”; it’s just another piece of patchy, secondhand evidence that Stubbs had to wrestle with.

Even with this background information, it’s still a coin-toss; or rather, it’s the writer’s call. Do they think that a kangaroo hide counts as “in the flesh”? Did they leave the comma out deliberately, in the full knowledge that they were creating a restriction? Maybe. But writers put, or don’t put, commas in strange places without always realising the consequences. And since the piece praises Stubbs’s artistic achievement against the odds, half the world away from the Outback, isn’t the whole point that he had almost nothing to work with in Britain?  One or the other interpretation must have been meant, and it’s hard to fudge: adding or leaving out the comma forces you to make a binary choice between meanings.

And that’s one reason, at least, why I’m still so sympathetic to Fowler’s efforts to get writers to maintain “which” after a non-restrictive comma, and “that” when there isn’t one, to reinforce their intentions.  So much hangs on that little tick on the page: it’s such a weak hinge for such a big semantic pivot. Its appearances and disappearances can be as random as the peregrinations of the apostrofly. One virgule-shaped fleck on the newsprint in the wrong place, or one greasy spot that doesn’t take the ink from the roller, and everything changes. Makes me nervous.

Stop it, dash it

15 May

Having talked about one of Fowler’s ideas that caught on widely across the English-speaking world, here’s another idea he championed that didn’t go anywhere at all.

In Modern English Usage (mine is the revised edition by Gowers; it may be slightly different in the original version), HW writes as follows on the subject of parenthesis symbols in the lengthy section “Stops”:

“1. Parentheses may be indicated in any one of four ways: by square brackets, by round brackets, by dashes, and by commas …

2. After the second bracket or dash any stop that would have been used if the brackets or dashes and their contents had not been there should still be used.”

Well, after brackets, of course. That’s something that, infrequent though it is (and it is fairly infrequent), most people remember to do.* But does he really mean it should be done after dashes as well? He surely does:

“After the second bracket this is sometimes forgotten; after the second dash it is seldom remembered, or rather, perhaps, it is deliberately neglected as fussy. But, if it is fussy to put a stop after a dash, it is messy to pile two jobs at once upon the dash, and those to whom fussiness is repugnant should eschew the double-dash form of parenthesis except where no stop can be needed.”

As ever, there are some worked examples, showing sentences without the required stops and then a note (here in red) indicating where they should go:

“So far as it is true – and how far it is true does not count for much – it is an unexpected bit of truth (read much – , it). | If he abandons a pursuit it is not because he is conscious of having shot his last bolt – that is never shot – it is because … (read never shot – ; it is).”

So, just to reiterate what he’s suggesting: if you insert a parenthetical remark inside dashes at the end of a clause – something like this one –, you have to include at the end both the dash that ends the parenthesis and the punctuation mark that would otherwise have terminated the clause (in this case the comma).

In 18 years of editing, I’ve never seen anyone even try this, let alone defend it when challenged – which they could easily do by pointing to the book and saying “It’s in Fowler”, just as those who observe the which/that distinction can.

You can see why it hasn’t caught on; it does indeed look fussy. And faced with the looming prospect of a missing stop or unwanted elision, there are usually several options for rewording available. Certainly, the second of Fowler’s examples would be much happier broken into two sentences:

“If he abandons a pursuit it is not because he is conscious of having shot his last bolt: that is never shot. It is because …”

On the other hand, you might argue, if we put the stops in after the brackets, why aren’t we doing it for the dashes too?

I don’t know if this practice was more prevalent in the punctuation-heavy Victorian prose with which Fowler grew up. But precisely nobody does it now, which I think says something about how even the most authoritative prescriptivist needs to win hearts, minds and the vote of popular usage before starting to have any influence on the language.

For all the occasional descriptivist anxiety about rules being “imposed”  on a language, there’s no Academie Anglaise to mandate any of these ideas. A language writer makes a suggestion, or perhaps even claims a rule, in a book. The idea, perhaps, gets passed on in school as a basic tip for the benefit of non-specialists who will be dropping English as a subject as soon as they can. In desperation, perhaps, faced with a class of inattentive 12-year-olds, the teacher simplifies and toughens the idea into an absolute – “you should never start a sentence with ‘and’!”. Perhaps some of them remember that on the rare occasions that they sit down to write. Perhaps it even enters the collective consciousness about the language.

But that’s all that ever happens. There is no “imposition”. If there were, surely Fowler would have been imposed in toto, and we would all be punctuating our interjections with scrupulous care. But we aren’t – which persuades me to think that prescriptivism’s great popular successes, like which/that, are almost as much of an inexplicable, descriptivist phenomenon as slang and meaning change.

So, who knows?  It might be worth experimenting with the idea here on the blog to see if, belatedly, it might catch on. Get ready for a lot of sentences that, though lengthy – and who is to say that length is not  a virtue? –, are punctuated beyond all possibility of confusion.

* I’ve remembered to do it in this sentence, for example.