You Can Write Whatever You Want


Word Watch has entered its fifteenth year of operation — a good time to take up a subject that deserves to be addressed, especially on behalf of a libertarian audience. I do this from time to time, in various ways, but I haven’t done it for quite a while. So here goes.

There are two ways of discussing grammar and usage. One is descriptive: you try to describe how a language “really is,” right now. The other is prescriptive: you try to say what the language should be. Almost all academic linguists, and some academic grammarians, take the descriptive, supposedly scientific course. This column, however, is strongly prescriptive. It tries to describe what’s going on, but it also tries to state where it went wrong (or, occasionally, right). But rules and prescriptions — even advice — can be hard to sell to libertarians.

Every 20 years, there’s a revolution among people who teach composition in American colleges, and everybody has to swear allegiance to a new creed.

“Why,” readers sometimes ask, “do I have to bother with rules? Why can’t I say and write whatever I want, so long as my audience understands me? And who has the right to make these rules, after all?”

Those are good questions, and they deserve good answers. Here they are.

It’s true; you don’t have to bother with rules. By right you are free to express yourself in whatever way you want. If you want to say, “I think everybody should, like, go ahead and, like, you know, vote for the, like, party of freedom?, I mean the, you know, Libertarian Party?” you can do so, and a normal audience will understand what you’re driving at, despite the pointless interjections and the irritating “uptalk.” But that doesn’t mean that no one should have the temerity to suggest that you sound like an idiot.

Every 20 years, there’s a revolution among people who teach composition in American colleges, and everybody has to swear allegiance to a new creed. According to a creed that was temporarily espoused about 40 years ago (and probably 40 years before that, too), teachers should not presume to “correct” their students’ work; they should simply encourage them to abandon their fears and write. If you did enough writing, you would turn out well. Or good. Or something. Old-fashioned teachers were satirized for penning such insolent marginalia as, “I know what you’re trying to say, but it’s not quite coming through.” How, it was demanded, do you presume to think that you know what somebody else is trying to say, yet not really saying? But of course that’s nonsense. If a young American writes, “The judge was so disinterested that she fell asleep,” you’ll know what he meant, and you’ll also know that the word he needs, whether he knows it or not, is “uninterested.” You’ll know it because you’re more competent than he is.

Well, who has the right to say that uninterested is the right word? People use uninterested and disinterested interchangeably, all the time.

Yes, that’s a description of what they do. They also say, “I seen you crossing the street,” all the time. There remains the question of what they ought to do. Anyone has the right to decide that question, and be correct or incorrect about it, just as anyone has the right to decide whether Raphael was a better artist than the four-year-old next door.

How, it was demanded, do you presume to think that you know what somebody else is trying to say, yet not really saying?

In respect to Raphael and the preschool kid, the best qualified judges will be people who have seen lots of art, and lots of kinds of art, people who are familiar with the various effects that art tries to achieve and who are perceptive enough to notice whether those effects actually are achieved by any given work. Such judges may well say that the kid’s paintings project an immediacy that Raphael never achieved (or wanted), but they will also say that when it comes to the art museum, or the narthex of the church, Raphael is better.

These people’s judgments will carry authority, but the issue is never who shall judge but how the judgment is made. If you have a competent understanding of the resources of the English language, you know that uninterested and disinterested are traditionally considered virtual opposites of each other, and you recognize that the distinction between them continues to be valuable. It allows people to say such things as, “The judge was admirably disinterested, but she was woefully uninterested in the case before her.” No one has authority over the English language — not even Webster’s Dictionary and Fowler’s Modern English Usage — but every informed and rational judgment is authoritative.

This is no tyranny. It is a vindication of the individual mind.

Having said all this, I don’t want to sacrifice too much to the idea that, yes, we can understand you, no matter how ugly we consider your self-expression. Sometimes — not infrequently — we cannot understand you, because your ugliness gets in the way.

On August 11, a good example came into my possession. I was on a ship off the eastern coast of Canada, and my internet connection didn’t work. Actually, I was too cheap to make it work. Anyway, I picked up a copy of the news digest that the New York Times provides for the maritime trade, and there I found an article about James K. Galbraith, an economist who gives zany advice to people in Greece. Apparently the advice is to initiate the millennium by inflating the currency enough to repudiate the nation’s debts. If I’m wrong about this, I’m sorry; I’m just trying to interpret the Times account of his notions:

Galbraith . . . argued passionately that a new currency would wash away the country’s debts, solve Greece’s competitiveness problem and ultimately create what he called a “good society.” A step opposed by a vast majority of Greeks, he had drawn up a contingency plan for Greece under [finance minister Yanis] Varoufakis’s direction, in case the country was forced to leave the [euro] currency zone by its creditors.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. But there’s a crucial grammatical error in there. It occurs in the second sentence. It’s a dangling modifier. “A step opposed by a vast majority of Greeks” is supposed to fit with or “modify” something else in the sentence, but what? The normal candidate would be the noun or pronoun immediately following the modifier. In this sentence, that candidate is “he.” Unfortunately, “he” is not a “step.” So the modifier is dangling, apparently unattached to anything else.

Many Greeks probably like his ideas, but most are probably unaware of his personal existence.

Now, the English, and especially the British, language is full of dangling modifiers. They are widespread, but they are wrong. When you, as a reader, pay the kind of attention to sentences that any author would appreciate your paying, you try to visualize the author’s meaning. But when a sentence includes a dangling modifier, the resulting image is misleading or ludicrous. Steps don’t draw up contingency plans.

And here the dangling modifier creates a problem that is worse than aesthetic. It’s a conceptual problem: what is the step that most Greeks oppose? It is not, alas, Mr. Galbraith (“he”); many Greeks probably like his ideas, but most are probably unaware of his personal existence. Well, is it the “contingency plan”? Probably not. Schemes to get rich by welshing on your debts are usually pretty popular. OK. How about “a good society”? No . . . few people are “opposed” to anything like that.

We’re still searching for the “step.” But notice that now we’re trying to figure out what the passage means by using whatever we knew about the subject before we read the passage. We’re going in reverse: authors are supposed to say something that adds to our knowledge, not something that depends on our pre-existing knowledge to understand.

All right, suppose that the “step” to which most Greeks are “opposed” is “a new currency”? Maybe. Probably. But how can we be sure? No matter how free you are with your lingo, “currency” is not a “step.” And we reached our identification of “step” with “currency” only through the process of eliminating every other possibility. It’s conceivable that there is no “step,” that the passage is literally meaningless.

Writing of this quality hardly inspires confidence in the New York Times. It’s a harsh saying, and sometimes wrong, but it’s basically true: if you don’t reflect on the way in which you say things, the things you say are unlikely to be taken seriously.

That’s true about words that appear in professional jargon or regional dialects or purely colloquial language as well as about words embedded in formal written English. If you’re trying to talk like a millennial and you don’t recognize the difference between dude, bro, brother, and mate, you’re not going to be treated as reliable on most of the subjects you want to address. If you’re trying to make some intellectual contribution and you show that you don’t care, or maybe don’t know, about the rules of grammar, your readers will wonder, perhaps justifiably, whether you have anything to contribute. And if you, as an intellectual, turn out writing that’s as stiff as a board, people will begin to ask themselves whether you have the understanding of human beings, their likes and dislikes and ways of interpreting the world, that is necessary to most intellectual disciplines.

We’re going in reverse: authors are supposed to say something that adds to our knowledge, not something that depends on our pre-existing knowledge to understand.

I’m talking about what Aristotle called ethos — the perceived character of a speaker or writer. As Aristotle observes, if you don’t have a decent ethos you’ll have lots of trouble getting other people to listen to you and agree with you. But I’m also talking about what we moderns call empathy — human beings’ ability to imagine what others are like, what others are likely to feel, how others are likely to react to what we do or say. If you can’t summon enough empathy to look at your sentences and see whether your readers will receive them as clear communications or as verbal puzzles, you should stop writing until you’re in a better mood. If you insist on writing, “All taxpayers have been now directed to submit his/her forms to the nearest IRS/tax office,” you should have enough empathy to know that while most readers will understand your sentence, sort of, their attention will be fixed not on your meaning but on your annoying slash forms, your unidiomatic placement of words (“now”), and your odd switch from plural (“taxpayers”) to singular (“his/her”). You’re free not to realize that or to care about it, but don’t think you’ll emerge from that sentence with your ethos intact.

In July, the computers at Southwest Airlines failed, and hundreds of flights were canceled. Passengers were understandably unhappy, but the icing on their cake of fury — note: I have enough empathy to realize that you will realize that this is an awful metaphor; I ask you to have enough empathy to understand that the image is supposed to be amusing — the icing on their cake of fury, I say, was Southwest’s explanation of the affair, an explanation that the airline placed on an obscure website, which nobody ever goes to, an explanation headlined by these words:

Information Regarding Operational Impact of Technology Issues

Is there a man or woman on the face of the earth who would guess that this had anything to do with a canceled flight? Empathy? We don’t need no stinkin’ empathy. And is there a person on earth who, after finally getting the point, would retain any confidence in anything that Southwest might deign to say thereafter?

Proceeding to another sample of great corporate writing — an advertisement for the Viking line of cruise ships, which makes this claim:

Designed as an upscale hotel, Viking’s chefs deliver a superb . . . experience.

Here’s another dangling modifier: “designed as an upscale hotel.” It’s presumably the ship that’s designed that way, but ship is nowhere in the sentence. What the sentence literally means is that Viking’s chefs are designed as an upscale hotel.

It’s funny; you laugh. Then you wonder: if Viking’s spokesmen are so careless with words, are they also careless with meanings? Can it be that their messages are just so many phrases thrown at the audience, to see what will stick? Can it be that a Viking ship is not actually anything like an upscale hotel? But one thing is clear: no one at Viking imagines that readers will actually think about its messages.

Obama knows the past tense of “see,” but he doesn’t know about a thousand other things he should know if he wants to maintain his ethos of literacy.

Ethos and empathy . . . On July 22, President Obama made a statement in which he said that Donald Trump’s speech of the night before “just doesn’t jive with the facts.” The president said that twice. Of course, what he meant was “agree with the facts.” I know that. But the word that means “agree,” in this sense, is jibe, not jive. I understand that there are millions of people who don’t know the difference. Peace to all such. There are also millions of people who don’t realize that the past tense of “see” is not “seen.”

Obama knows the past tense of “see,” but he doesn’t know about a thousand other things he should know if he wants to maintain his ethos of literacy. He has, for instance, never mastered the like-as distinction or the not-so-subtle rules governing pronoun case (“just between you and I”). With him, lack of ethos is related, as it often is with lesser mortals, to a lack of empathy. He has evidently never asked himself whether there may be persons on this planet, and millions of them, who know more about grammar and usage than he does, so he has never felt the need to investigate these subjects.

“Well,” I hear some truly generous libertarians saying, “we all make mistakes.” Yes, we do. Indeed we do. And that’s the most important realization we can have about this subject. We all make mistakes. The question is whether we want to notice our mistakes and do something about them.

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Scott Robinson

Dear Stephen,

Good point that it is our individual responsibility to proofread the things we write. This article leads me to think about my infatuation with, "keep it simple stupid," as personal instructions. Perhaps this is because I don't want to burden myself with a large amount of writing to examine. I still like to think that I like it because, in my opinion, statements with lots of words allows you to conceal what your subject is. The subject often being nothing at all, in my opinion. However, your instruction is very valuable, critically proofread what you write and state your message in a better way. I know, "better" is a very vague word.

Best Wishes,

Robert H. Miller

You've nailed it, Stephen! I haven't read anything quite as good, precise and analytical since reading Bertrand Russell's essays.

Jon Harrison

How often do I say (or write) that I agree with you completely? But I do indeed agree with everything you say here.

These days vague antecedents seem to be even more prevalent than dangling modifiers. As a freelance editor I see them all the time. In fact, I've just labored over a manuscript that contained an overwhelming number of vague antecedents -- one or more in almost every paragraph of a 50,000-word manuscript.

Such errors stem from the decision taken in the late 1960s to stop teaching grammar in public schools. Or am I wrong about that? It seems to me that grammar has disappeared from elementary and secondary school curriculums.

Did you mention disinterested and uninterested with the movie "Bugsy" in mind? Watch that flick again if you don't recall what I'm alluding to.

Paul Thiel

My personal theory is that grammar started going to hell when schools stopped teaching sentence diagramming. Good luck getting diagramming re-instated in the English curriculum.

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