Tag Archives: Fowler

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.

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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.