Archive for June 23rd, 2008

After writing professionally on the web for several years, I’m no stranger to careless readers and wonky comments. I learned long ago that not only can you not count on everyone to read your thoughts carefully, but that some subjects, such as Microsoft’s intentions towards free software, cause many people’s critical facilities to go on holiday. But none of the subjects I’ve written about provoke as much blind reaction as the suggestion that grammar should be descriptive rather than prescriptive.

I was reminded of this fact recently when I noticed that my article “Tech-writers, Grammar, and the Prescriptive Attitude” had not survived a redesign of the Techwr-l site where it was originally posted. Because I still get requests for it, I asked Deb and Eric Ray, who maintain the site, to send me a copy of the published version, and posted it on my blog. The request also prompted them to repost the essay on the original site. In the days since, I’ve been fielding a comment or two per day from both sources, most of them sent privately.

Some people approve the sentiments in the article, but perhaps half are outraged. They set out to correct my thinking by pointing out that, without consistency, language ceases to communicate. Their assumption seems to be that only official English has consistency. I answer that all forms of English have their own rules – for instance, a double negative, which is considered wrong in official English, is perfectly understandable with the context of some Afro-American dialects (and, I might add, Old English). So far, none of these conversations have continued beyond this point.

Another conversation about the article begins with someone asking if I’m saying that we (by which the reader usually means sophisticated, literary folk like themselves) should go along with mispronunciations or incorrect uses, usually in sarcastic tones that suggest that, of course, I mean no such thing. I reply that I do mean exactly that, that, when a pronunciation or usage reaches a certain degree of popularity, it becomes standard usage.

To this comment, my correspondent usually replies that it is the duty of the literate to fight against such barbarisms. My response is that you are, of course, free to use any language that you care to, but, if you imagine that your example is going to inspire an outbreak of proper usage, then you think far too much of yourself. The most anyone can do is avoid usages that are vague in the name of clarity and personal style – and, at that point, another conversation peters out.

And these are just the most common ones. I’ve been accused of advocating complete chaos, of insisting on poetic language at the expense of clarity, and all sorts of other stances that have nothing to do with what I wrote, no matter how you construe my words. Often enough, people insist that I believe something that I frankly state that I do not believe. Apparently, many people – particularly those who work with words – have so much invested in their self-image as initiates into the secrets of proper grammar that any suggestion that their knowledge is as useless as heraldry immediately robs them of their ability to read and analyze text.

Personally, I find the idea that we have, not one but dozens of versions of English exciting and challenging. It means that, as a writer, I have more to explore than I can possibly learn in one lifetime. But that, unfortunately, seems to be a minority viewpoint.

A good thing that I thrive on being a contrarian, or I might find the hostile responses disheartening.

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