Lately I had a chance to converse with Leland Yeager, who has frequently contributed his insights to this column, about the subject of prescriptivism — the habit or policy of prescribing proper grammar and usage. I thought you would enjoy what he had to say, so I asked him to write it out for you.
Here’s Leland Yeager:
Prescriptivism warns writers and speakers against supposed errors. Yet, as suggested by John McWhorter in his Teach-
ing Company DVD courses on language and linguistics, most professional linguists scorn it. As scientists, they are descriptivists. They un-judgmentally record speech differences among differ- ent regions or socioeconomic and ethnic classes. The distinction between descriptivism and prescriptivism appears in an anecdote about the cultured English clergyman whose daughter chided him for a usage unapproved by the dictionary. “My dear,” her father replied, “dictionaries are meant to record the speech of people like me, not determine it.”
All languages have evolved from earlier and quite different forerunners, perhaps even from one original protolanguage. Language accommodates change in technology and culture. Isn’t it presumptuous, then, to distinguish between correct and incorrect usage and condemn departure from supposed norms?
Yet adaptive change is one thing; change from sheer sloppiness and ignorance is another. It can impede communication, especially between generations. And even when ignorant changes are intelligible, they may cause ambiguity and irritation, drawing attention away from what the writer is trying to say. Happily, though, and in contrast with prehistoric times, writing, the print- ing press, near-universal education, and respect for standards tend to resist pointless language change.
Prescriptivism need not bossily challenge libertarianism.
Clear and correct writing helps make libertarian arguments effective. In language as in other fields, advice is not compulsion. A free society must leave much behavior to its members’ mutual respect. Attempts to suppress all bad and enforce all good behavior would destroy freedom and could not succeed anyway. Mutual respect and social cohesion are compatible with and even enhanced by diversity — in occupations, ancestral or national traditions, religion, social groupings, food, recreations, and favorite causes. Healthy diversity affords many niches in which an individual can excel, find self-esteem, and avoid invidious comparisons with people of different excellences. (Think of Ayn Rand’s Galt’s Gulch.)
What is subversive is ostentatious contempt for people’s rights and peaceful interactions. Beyond outright crime, examples are gangster-style clothing and songs and, yes, abusive or habitually vulgar or ostentatiously careless language. Poor writing style is less destructive than offenses like that, and arguably less serious than violating accepted grammar and word meanings. Yet advice about writing style is widely welcomed. Even the descriptivist McWhorter, in his above-mentioned courses, recommends, if only in passing, straightforward over clumsy style and clear over opaque writing; he even occasionally corrects himself on gram- mar, as on verb tenses.
Here are some examples of good advice: write uncomplicated sentences and paragraphs of varied lengths, using plenty
of short ones. Preserve parallelism. Use common rather than recondite words; prefer the Anglo-Saxon word to a Latin-derived synonym. (Yet, like William Buckley, don’t shrink from sending your reader to the dictionary with an obscure word that expresses your meaning more exactly than any near-synonym.) Use cliches sparingly. Consider whether each of your adjectives and adverbs adds anything to your meaning. Use verbs rather than abstract nouns derived from verbs. Prefer the active to the passive voice. Recognize that punctuation is no mere matter of hunch or feel; rules have evolved. Finally, don’t be pretentious.
Advice about being considerate of the reader verges on prescriptivism. What distinguishes it from descriptivism is fuzzy. The borderline is also fuzzy between repulsive style and down- right error. It is fuzzy like the line between actual traffic rules and principles of good driving. But given only a fuzzy distinction, why limit oneself to giving advice on style? Why insist on only describing usage? Why not issue some warnings about bad choices of words?
Let’s start with vogue words — the trendy expressions one hears all the time. Relying on them betrays ignorance, sloppiness, and laziness. This column has sensitized me to one of them in particular: “issue.” Its core meaning has been stretched to “problem” or “defect” or “blemish.” An advertisement touts a certain cream as a remedy for “skin issues.” An article on the debt problems of Greece mentions “others in the euro zone with similar issues.” And consider “prior to,” as in “prior to World War I” or “prior to leaving on a trip.” When was the last time you saw the good old “before” in print?
What bothers me most, in this class of words, is the ubiquitous “incredible” and “incredibly.” My campaign against them is getting nowhere. All too many people use these words to avoid the bother of thinking just what they mean. When either adds anything at all to the meaning of a sentence, “incredibly” means “very,” and “incredible” usually means “very ______ ,” leaving what fills the blank to the reader’s imagination. When the word modified has an evaluative character, “incredible” may mean “extreme,” as in “incredible misery.” On January 22, Wolf Blitzer of CNN mentioned “incredible, incredible stories” of destruction and death in Haiti. Did he mean awful, horrible, heart-rending, gruesome, macabre (or whatever) stories, or just false ones (“in-
credible” means “unbelievable”)? Someone once posted on the internet an enthusiastic account of a boat trip on Lake Tahoe: “The whole trip was incredible, but Emerald Bay was incredibly incredible.”
Particularly amusing are vogue words used with roughly the opposite of their core meaning. Sean Hannity, on his Fox News show of Feb. 19, 2009, promised an “incredible, inspiring story” about a football player who gave up a lucrative career to become a border-patrol agent. How can a story be inspiring if it can’t even be believed?
Vogue words are verbal clutter. More of it can be found in expressions that cause ambiguity, redundancy, and momentary dis- traction. On March 3, 2005, the Auburn [University] Plainsman announced that a bill had been introduced in the state legislature “restricting the purchase of violent and sexually explicit video games to consumers under 18 years of age.” Must the games not be sold to consumers under 18 or only to them?
Simply omitting the conjunction “that,” although idiomatic rather than wrong, can be confusing: “[Secretary of State] “Rice warned a U.N. tribunal being formed to probe assassinations of Lebanon leaders must be assured safety, a message directed at Syria” (Wall Street Journal, June 27, 2007).
Phony dating is deliberately ambiguous. A fundraising letter from Newt Gingrich received this January was dated “Tuesday evening”; the spuriously precise time reference compounded its phoniness. Appeals from the Republican Party are often “dated” like that. Such a non-date makes me wonder whether the sub- stance of the letter is phony also. Phoniness or omission of a date violates Hirshleifer’s Rule, as I call it, because Jack Hirshleifer explained it to me: every even halfway important piece of paper requires a genuine and complete date.
Examples of redundancy or wordiness are never far to seek. Some are hilarious. “‘Preliminary autopsy results confirm that the cause of death appears to be an apparent drowning,’ said Lee County coroner Bill Harris.” The sentence appeared in the Ope- lika-Auburn News (Feb. 3), but it could have appeared anywhere. So could a weather forecast in the same paper, the following
day: “Rain and windy conditions, today and tonight.” Why not just “wind”? And so could this, from the OAN, Nov. 28, 2009: “With the exception of bin Laden’s capture, those missions were accomplished in a matter of weeks.” An official interviewed on Fox News in May 2008 about part of the reconstruction effort in New Orleans expected its completion “in a matter of a very short period of time.” Why not just “soon” or “very soon”? My rephrasing is vague, but so is the original verbosity. “We sold 56 of these in a two-day period of time,” said a Wal-Mart associate on Fox News (July 13, 2008.) Why not “in two days”? A television commercial for gold observed that “its price” had “tripled in value” in just a few years. “Gold has tripled in value” or “the price of gold has tripled” would avoid the redundancy.
Worse than redundancy is pretentious hyper-correctness — ignorant attempts to be elegantly and conspicuously correct. This happens, for instance, when “hypothecate” becomes confused with “hypothesize,” replacing the good old “suppose” or “guess.” A review of a new pizza parlor in The Corner (an Auburn weekly newspaper) of April 9, 2008, said that “Neon lights stamped across the wall inadvertently label the selection of beers . . .” Only lately did it occur to me that the reporter may have meant “intermittently.” “Jim greeted Janice and I” replaces “Jim greeted Janice and me”; and “whom,” because it sounds learned, turns up in constructions requiring “who.” The approval of the government’s pay czar, we are told, will be required “of the compensation package for whomever succeeds Kenneth D. Lewis” (Wall Street Journal, Nov. 14–15, 2009). Fear of using “like” as a conjunction becomes fear of the word even when it is correctly used as a preposition, as in “Like Mary, she was a good writer,” replaced by “As Mary . . .”
Another example of pretentiousness is the way in which “majority” displaces “most” even in contexts that do not involve counting: Victor Hugo “lived in France for the majority of his life” (Wikipedia entry on Hugo); “new 18-inch ceramic tiles will cover the majority of the store” (OAN, March 31, 2007); “the majority of the warming will occur in the winter, at night, and in polar latitudes” (Acton Institute, Environmental Stewardship in the Judeo-Christian Tradition, 2007, p. 89).
This is pretentious ignorance. Unpretentious ignorance keeps getting easier to find in print. The Opelika-Auburn News merely participates in the national trend by its inability to distinguish “lay” from “lie”: “[O]fficers found the 33-year-old PGA star lay- ing in the street” (November 28, 2009); “Report: Year of elevated joblessness lays ahead” (headline, Jan. 9, 2010). How many people can spot the logical problem that arises when “different from” is displaced by “different than” — as in this internet message: “Your login for the Maxperks site may be different than your login on the OfficeMax site”? Yes, we say, “He is taller than I am,” but “different” is not a comparative, like “taller.” And what’s the grammatical sense of “us” in the following: “I believe that loyalty is a function of us living up to our pledge” (the January 2010 publication of a think-tank that I leave unnamed because I admire it)? “Us” should be “our.” Then there are simple, ignorant confusions of words: “flout” for “flaunt,” “imply” for “infer,” “transpire” for “happen,” “fulsome praise” for “lavish praise,” and “decimate” for “annihilate” or “slaughter.”
Writers need to keep their readers’ attention on the important things — and this is where the issue of “sexism” comes in. Either conspicuous sexism or the conspicuous avoidance of sexism can sidetrack the reader’s attention away from content onto its manner of delivery. Pronouns are particularly challenging. For many nowadays, the traditional generic “he” has become taboo. Expedients include “he or she,” an invariable “she,” or alternation between “he” and “she”; but any of these can be distracting and momentarily confusing. Artificial gender-neutral pronouns such as “s/he” are repulsive. The evasion of casting pronouns and verbs in the plural works poorly when the writer wants to emphasize the action or decision of a single person (as in much of economic theory).
Stephen Cox and I differ on another evasion that has become popular. An example: “Take your pet to visit their veterinarian
at least once a year” (OAN, Jan. 10). “His or her” or “her” or “its veterinarian” would seem ridiculous, as would “Take your pets to visit their veterinarians. . . .” And “the” or “a” veterinarian would lose the suggestion of an ongoing relationship. A second example: “Any legislator whose name appears on this legislation can expect to pack their bags and go home” (letter to OAN, Jan. 13). Writ- ing “his or her” or just “her” would be distracting, and recasting in the plural would lose the intended emphasis.
Cox and I may regret loss of the traditional gender-neutral “he,” but I welcome “they” when suspicion of sexism cannot be better evaded — although “they” is more usual and acceptable in spontaneous conversation than in careful writing and scripted speech. “They” for both singular and plural has a precedent in “you,” which in early English was a plural pronoun only. Still connecting with a plural verb, “you” has since become singular as well as plural. (The southern form “you all” is available to emphasize the plural.) In brief, the singular “they” is justifiably becoming the least-bad way of avoiding supposed sexism, in conversation and informal writing.
At any rate, my own main argument for prescriptivism is that sloppiness and ignorance can distract, confuse, or annoy the read- er, interfering with the author’s message. If my preaching at writers on behalf of readers has sensitized some readers to being distracted by things that had not bothered them before, I am sorry. And if some of my preaching may seem like pedantry, I confess: judicious pedantry can be fun.