What you get here

January 11, 2013

Yesterday's post on a maladroit paragraph in Slate that used mantle for mantel, and which would have been a shoddy piece of work even if it had been written the other way around, prompted a reader named Chris Harris to take me to task on Facebook:

You are being unusually prescriptivist on this. And for what it's worth, I'd stack my credentials against yours in knowing how and when to cite the OED. Get off your snobby horse, John. Fight a real battle. ... What is increasingly evident in your column is your tendency to be judgemental about people, which does little to advance clarity and quality in writing. 

Why Mr. Harris should take it ill that I disagree with him is obscure; it certainly doesn't disturb my slumbers that he disagrees with me. But his remarks offer an occasion to make clear to you, dear readers, especially the recent arrivals, what I am about here. 

In the seven years I have written this blog, I have always identified myself as a prescriptivist. Editing is inherently prescriptive; an editor makes innumerable judgments about what ought to be done, or not done, in a text. But I have also always qualified that, saying that I am a moderate, or reasonable, or informed prescriptivist. What I admire about descriptivists is their close attention to empirical evidence, to the way speakers and writers actually use the language. 

That means that I do not hold the scroolroom grammar I was taught in Fleming County, Kentucky, in the early 1960s to represent eternal verities,* and though I know colleagues who revere the late John Bremner, I question his infallibility. I am a reformed stickler.

Those of you who have been reading along for a while will not be as astonished as Mr. Harris that I am sometimes severe. When I thought the late Queen's English Society to be both fatuous and futile, I said so. When I find that the guidelines of the Associated Press Stylebook are misguided, I say so emphatically. When I come across public utterances of codswallop,** I call the speakers on it. People, and I am one, who set themselves up to perform publicly had better be prepared to endure censure as well as praise. 

So. This is how we roll here in Wordville.*** 

We do not consider that formal written English is superior to other forms of English, merely better suited to certain purposes. 

Within the expanse of formal written English, English for publication, we recognize that some traditional "rules" are bogus, that some usages have fallen out of the language and others have developed, and that there is controversy among experienced writers about others. 

We try to make informed judgments by consulting various authorities, which is why you will find here repeated references to the Oxford English Dictionary, Garner's Modern American Usage, and Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, to the linguists' posts at Language Log, to blogs such as Jan Freeman's Throw Grammar from the Train or the Chronicle of Higher Education's Lingua Franca

We try to pay attention to the best writing we come across in books and articles, to see how the language is being wielded today. We consult our own tastes and preferences, willing always to examine them to see whether we may be mistaken. 

And we balance, as all editors do, the competing interests and values of author, occasion, audience, and publication. 

You get here the best-informed opinions and judgments I have to offer, and you are welcome to dispute them in the comments, here or on Facebook or Twitter. I assume that if you stick around, it is because you are in general agreement with the values and approach I've just described. If not, you can start your own blog. 

*Forgive me, Elizabeth Hartley Craig.

**D'you remember the gentleman who tried to argue that prescriptivism is more moral than descriptivism? If I were to concede that lecturing other people on how you think they ought to behave constitutes morality, I might have to grant his point. 

***A title bestowed by readers of Elizabeth Large's lovely gone-but-not-forgotten blog Dining@Large

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