We the few, the brave

March 19, 2013|By John E. McIntyre | The Baltimore Sun

The estimable Jonathon Owen has published an article on towards and toward at Visual Thesaurus, presenting an interesting and plausible theory that the prevalence of the latter form in American published writing can be attributed to the efforts of copy editors. I commend it to you. 

One thing that caught my eye was a comment appended to the article, from one Craig J. of Mundelein, Illinois:

Pity the poor prescriptivists who suffer the slings and arrows of outraged descriptivists for holding the line against anarchy (the inevitable result of untempered democracy). Both points of view are necessary to making language, particularly written language, achieve its greatest utility. Some prescriptivist efforts are futile and/or arbitrary, like knocking the "s" out of "towards" (as described above), but without their work linguistic drift would be excessive amongst millions or even billions of people plying each their own brand of English. No one likes being "spanked" (unless they're a true masochist), but the preferences of the few, or the one, should sometimes be subordinated to the needs of the many.

I think that Craig J. has given us a capsule summary of the hard-shell prescriptivist Weltanshauung. And it is one that I would have unthinkingly accepted as a full-fledged prescriptivist during my hot-blooded youth. In that wordlview, we prescriptivists are a hardy band of brothers, every day is St. Crispin's Day, and we charge into the breach screaming for Harry, England, and St. George!

This is just fudge.

What traditionalists celebrate as the grandeur of English, the Tudor English of Shakespeare and the Jacobean English of the Authorized Version, developed by the imagination of speakers and writers and the imitations and acceptance of hearers and readers. There wasn't anything you could call prescriptivism about English that amounted to much until the eighteenth century, when Bishop Lowth and a pack of other helpful inventors of rules started churning out books of instruction for the striving middle classes.

Since then, a good deal of prescriptivism has been nothing more than inflexible adherence to "rules" of dubious validity. For an example: Mark J. Perry reprinted one of my posts about bogus rules on the American Enterprise Institute's website. Immediately the comments started upholding "rules" and suggesting that I am keen on opening the gates of the citadel to the barbarian hordes. (And I unwisely entered the lists myself. Should have known better than to bandy words with such people.) 

What Craig J. disparages as "linguistic drift" is there, and indeed always has been. It seems likely that universal public education and the conventions of standard written English in journalism and other publications have acted as a brake against drift, but I'm fairly sure than any linguist will tell you that all languages drift. Moreover, that linguistic drift seldom leads to anarchy. For that matter, Craig J. would do well to understand that the language we speak and write is in fact the product of "untempered democracy," the most democratic thing we have, since every speaker and writer of the language contributes to it.

I hadn't realized the degree to which over the past three decades I have personally unleashed the awesome power of the copy editor to make toward the dominant form in edited American prose. But I do realize that that is probably the extent of the effect that awesome power can achieve.

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