If they want rules, give them real ones

March 13, 2013|By John E. McIntyre | The Baltimore Sun

Much as I am in sympathy with Lucy Ferriss's latest post at Lingua Franca, I fear that something she says may be subject to a dangerous misinterpretation:

As I’ve said before, people want rules. Students, for instance, take notice when they start reading “to the Senator and I” in the newspaper, and when “with she and her brother” receives tacit approval from writing instructors. They may even notice that “I like he and she” has started sounding OK. A little time passes, and they begin to doubt whether me, him, us, and them ever were correct to say in a predicate construction or prepositional phrase. So they write the transitive verb or the preposition, and then they’re a bit stumped. Then gingerly, doubting themselves, they pass through the wall . . . to “with he.”

The task before linguists, I assume, is to note this transition, possibly to name it. The task for professors who teach writing (which is almost all professors) is to guide our students toward usage that will be considered acceptable in the fields where they will try to flourish. The students are behaving reasonably, inferring from a slipping set of usages where the trend is heading. But writing, “This experience was important for I” will not cut it in a cover letter. Draw the line in the sand for me! the students beg us. So where do we draw it, and when do we let the tide wash it away?

The very first comment on her post, by Christoph DeHaven, shows to whom this passage will give aid and comfort:

The answer is to teach the prescriptive grammar that exists now, not the grammar linguists may anticipate in the future based on trends in usage. Prescriptive (correct) grammar sets the standard for how writing should be practiced, while linguistics describes how it is practiced--including errors committed by overtired politicians. A linguist should have no authority when it comes to deciding what is proper, anymore than an anthropologist of religion should conduct a Catholic mass.

Without troubling to instruct Mr. DeHaven that a proper prescriptivist would have capitalized Mass, not all prescriptivism is correct, and not all correctness arises from prescriptivism.

As a moderate, reasonable, and reformed prescriptivist myself, I find that prescriptivists give me a good deal more trouble than descriptivists ever do. D'you remember the gentleman who insisted that prescriptivism is morally superior to descriptivism?* (If a descriptivist dines at his house, does he count the spoons afterward?) Or there is this gentleman, commenting under the name "diteora" at my blog:

You are a true descriptivist in a prescriptivists clothing. 

I've read about those "bogus rules" in every grammar book I've read, and every book on linguistics perpetually dedicates a chapter or two on those rules. The redundancy is astronomical and frankly the rules are not as archaic as your grievances; if that's possible. 

Let me remind you these rules are "bogus" to you, but not to others. You have a right to your opinion, but an opinion is all it is. ...

The fact is Mr. Mcintyre the person who adheres to those "bogus rules" will be respected and taken far more seriously than the one who doesn't.

Without bothering to instruct diteora that names in direct address are set off with commas, or that possessives conventionally require the apostrophe, I will merely point out that many bogus rules have been exploded by pur sang prescriptivists. Both H.W. Fowler and Bryan Garner label as "superstitions" supposed "rules" that have been taught to generations of helpless children, and to which many self-proclaimed prescriptivists adhere today.

Because I teach editing, I have to instruct my charges in real-world editing. The world in which the schoolroom rules embraced by the peeververein may exist in a parallel universe, but not in ours.

In the real world, people write in a variety of registers, for different occasions and purposes. In some circumstances, they would do well to know the difference between who and whom; in others, it will not matter. Singular they will be increasingly acceptable in conversational writing, but not in formal. Many people say between him and I, and my students need to understand the sad, sad phenomenon of hypercorrection as a prop for social status and respectability. 

I also instruct them in coping with jackassery, since they will undoubtedly confront any number of jackasses in their careers, many of them prescriptivists. So, I say to them, if your thesis adviser insists on some manufactured rule that you know to be nonsense, getting the degree should be more important to you than proving yourself right. If your boss thinks that stranded prepositions are a crime against humanity, write around them and look for a more satisfactory place of employment. I'm pretty confident you'd rather not work for diteora.

Ms. Ferriss is correct that students hunger for certainty, and I give them as much as I have on supply. But I have to tell them that the luxuriant growth of English cannot be trimmed back to a handful of oversimplified and misguided rules.

*I am not making this up, you know.

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