The dumbest rules are the ones we invent for ourselves

ICYMI: John McIntyre recently put out a call in the Baltimore Sun and related social media for the most boneheaded prescriptions anyone’s ever tried to pass off as “rules” of English. I imagine the list is going to be long.

If you’ve spent any time at all in the paragraph-construction industry, you will have certainly encountered one of these by now – and likely more than one. I’m not even talking about the ones Mrs. Badcrumble tried to pass on to you in English class, or even the prescriptive nonsense that continues to be enshrined in the style guides of the Associated Press or the Economist. I’m talking about the supplemental rules – the ones that get passed along by other practitioners in the trade, whether handed down from some other mysterious authority or entirely home-brewed from scratch. I’m tempted to borrow a term from the gaming hobby and call them “house rules” – except house rules are usually intended to increase fun and add options to play, and are understood to only apply locally, and none of that is true of the kind of thing we’re talking about here.

The kind of “rule” that springs up out of hyperlocal peevery generally has two things in common: it says more about the rule-giver than about the language, and it operates on fridge logic – the kind of reasoning that makes sense while you’re talking about it, but falls apart once you have a chance to get up and get yourself a sandwich. Case in point is the proscription the otherwise very smart Jim Macdonald includes as an aside in his (quite excellent) Absolute Write novel-writing series against and then, which he says is nonsensical because and is concurrent while then is sequential. On the surface, that explanation may have you nodding in agreement, until fifteen minutes later when you remember that that’s not how language works. (To his very great credit, Macdonald knows he’s full of it on this, and admits that, as he puts it, “My mutant talent is to make my opinions sound like facts.”)

Others are rooted in even shiftier soil, though no less conviction. I had an editorial colleague who once tried to explain to me with great passion that she hates the term empower because – and she really said this, and believes it – power isn’t something you can bestow on someone. The mind boggles. But it goes to show how much our peeves are shaped by the idiosyncrasies of our worldviews, more than we probably want to admit.

There are a couple of things going on here. The first is that, if you’re in the language biz, and especially if you’re in the mending-and-polishing branch of paragraph manufacture, you are almost certainly inclined towards being lawful in alignment. To translate that for the non-nerds in the room: If you have a head for editing, you likely thrive on order, structure, logic, and pattern. You want there to be rules. You want things to make sense. You probably pick at things that set off your doesn’t-quite-add-up meter and are excellent at inventing reasons they’re wrong by some sensible-sounding set of measures. And I am here to admit that I am one of you. (Ask my family sometime about my childhood bout of mini-golf where I refused to go over the stroke limit even though there was no one in line behind us on the course. Those were the rules, man. You can’t just ignore  something like that, or it’s a short step to anarchy, dogs and cats living together, &c., &c.) I assure you, I only look like a Chaos Muppet; deep down, I have a downright unhealthy instinct to respect and obey authority, even when that authority is hollow and vaguely ridiculous. So I spent years avoiding and rewriting “and then”s in my prose, even though in my heart I knew damn well it was bogus, because Uncle Jim said it was a bad construction and I shouldn’t use it and his explanation kinda-sorta made sense. I suspect that’s how a lot of us are, unless we make very deliberate efforts to be otherwise. (I mean, of course we are – so much so that it’s dangerous to even voice our preferences aloud, as that’s the way wouldn’t-it-be-nice-if suggestions like the that/which distinction make the leap from idle musings to being enshrined in the fussy machinery of MS Word’s so-called grammar checker.)

The second thing, tied closely to the first, is that this love of order makes us expert and intuitive pattern-matchers. This is a vital tool in our professional toolbox, but it is not always to our benefit. The same talent that makes us good at catching when someone’s inconsistent with their capitalization or use of the serial comma also makes us hypersensitive to tics and quirks of usage, and prone to be irritated by them whether or not they’re wrong – and once something starts to stick in our craw, it’s all too easy to misuse the language of “logic” to invent a compelling-sounding reason it’s a mistake.

My fellow editors and writers, I beg you not to do this. You have enough on your plate already. Worry about the flow and rhythm of the prose; worry about accuracy; worry about reining in Rampant Capitalization. Don’t worry about trying to “disprove” the legitimacy of some usage that rubs you the wrong way, whether it’s just new or it seems to suddenly be all over the place and the repetition itself is what’s getting to you. “Logic” in the case of language and grammar is a trap, a distraction from the magic in what words and phrases actually do and how they work; a sentence isn’t an equation you can balance neatly to zero (thank heaven). Set your pattern-matching skills to their right tasks and learn to screen out the false positives they sometimes give you. Occasionally that will mean letting some inelegant or irrational-seeming phrase go unchanged. So be it. You are not here to stem the tide of language change or to be a gatekeeper against every innovation you find disagreeable; you’re here to make sure the words are the right ones for the job. Anything beyond that is outside the scope of your work.

English doesn’t need new “rules,” an ever-growing list of Dolores Umbridge prohibitions tacked up to keep the unruly in line and obedient. It needs experts in the craft of its use who understand what its actual rules are, what purpose they serve, and how they’re subject to change over time – and that they are an emergent phenomenon, not one imposed out of authority. That’s what makes this line of work an art. If it were easy, anyone could do it; if it were mathematical, they could give the task to a machine. Be thankful neither of those things is true.

I Ate’nt Dead

A quick and long-overdue update: I’ve been a couple of months at a new Day Job that included a long commute for a while and sucked up the energy (and time) I previously had for linguablogging. Now that I’ve settled in and gone mostly-virtual, I’m prepared to fire off a few more of the posts I’ve had half-formed in the queue, and normal transmissions should resume shortly.

In the meantime, it’s been a busy summer for language – far busier than I could hope to catch up with now. But most exciting (to me, at least) is the news of Kory Stamper’s forthcoming book – which should be out just in time to help you recover from next year’s National Grammar Day. Huzzah!

In the Mx

A recent Words We’re Watching post at Merriam-Webster online singled out the gender-neutral honorific Mx. as a trend worth paying attention to, enough so that it had been added to M-W unabridged dictionary. “CUE THE WHINING,” wrote author Saladin Ahmed in reaction on the Tweetie, and of course he was right: Without even scrolling down the comments, “Ridiculous,” “Mixed up is what it is,” and “Just too stupid for any additional words!” are responses that appear on the M-W article.

Here’s the thing, though: You don’t have to like that there are people who reject gender binaries and want an honorific to reflect that. You just need to accept that they exist. That’s what language is for – describing the world. And dictionaries, in turn, exist to catalogue the words we use for that description that have taken long-term hold. The addition of Mx. to Merriam-Webster’s unabridged lexicon isn’t the blessing of the High Council of English on a word worthy of joining the offical ranks; it’s a recognition that the word is already in widespread enough use to merit an entry, based on the idea that someone might be likely to come across it and want to know what it means.

When we speak and think in a language, we tend to unconsciously believe that the world falls into place exactly as that language describes it. This allows us to forget that the way language categorizes things may be arbitrary, or incomplete, or based on outdated notions and assumptions. As our knowledge of the world increases, the emergence of new terms can look like an annoyance to people who believe the existing vocabulary is sufficient; Everyone’s either a he or a she, they say, and when someone stands up to say, “But I’m not!” they insist it’s the new idea that has to be corrected rather that the language’s shortcoming. But this forgets that language is a work-in-progress that strives to reflect the world, not enforce limitations on it. When the toolkit is no longer sufficient, we create new tools instead of abandoning the work. When the words we have fall short, it only makes sense to engineer new ones that better represent the things we now know.

Yes, innovation can bring new complications and present new truths that make us uneasy. We didn’t use to have to worry about everyone’s pronouns, grumble the holdouts, and that’s true. But we also used to think it was moral to own people, that the social order was ordained by Heaven, that women had no place in civic life, that same-sex attraction was a disorder. We know better now. When meeting someone who wants to be addressed as Mx. and referred to as xie, we have an opportunity to learn something new. We do the world, and the language, more honor by embracing that opportunity with humility and grace than by insisting that, because our existing words haven’t made a place for it, the knowledge in question must be false.

Punctuation peeving and the gatekeepers of authenticity

Early last week, author Stephen Blackmoore said on the Tweetie, “Periods, commas, question marks. Everything else is bullshit.”

It was a one-off comment that may not have been entirely serious, and Blackmoore seems like a nice guy and I probably shouldn’t pick on him for this. But it’s a sentiment I’ve seen before. Lots of otherwise sensible and broad-minded people fixate on some punctuation mark that gets up their nose, like Kurt Vonnegut and his distaste for semicolons. And while it’s true that overuse of certain punctuation can be a distracting tic (as Anne Curzan illustrates in her meditation on the em dash), I have to wonder what people are thinking when they suggest weeding out the toolkit of written expression this way.

In the long history of the printed word, we’ve already jettisoned the punctuation that no longer serves us. The pilcrow and the manicule are mostly the stuff of old manuscripts now, and niche marks like the interrobang, quasiquote, and certainty point have failed to gain a foothold. At this stage, we can be pretty sure that the punctuation in common use is there because there’s a need for it.

So why do some marks inspire peeving and the impulse to dismiss them as “bullshit”? I suspect it’s a similar motivation to the much-loved, but still nonsensical, advice to “write with verbs and nouns, not adjectives and adverbs” and its variants – a purist version of “omit needless words.” Advocates of this approach say that the result is writing that’s “lean” or “concise” or “efficient,” as though those were obvious positives and ends in themselves that apply to all writing (which is not the case, but leave that for another day). And so there’s an idea that you can strip written language down to only its essentials, and everything that’s not strictly necessary goes in the Bullshit bin.

And what a lot of bullshit that outlook is. Yes, you can write using only “periods, commas, question marks.” But why would you? We have different kinds of connective tissue in sentences because the variation in rhythm and structure they provide is pleasing to the eye and helps convey meaning, tone, cadence, pace – all things that the skilled writer is a careful architect of. A well-written text is like a musical score that tells you where to pause, where to breathe, where to slow down, where to dash (as it were) forward. No one would tell a composer that some kinds of rests are essential and others are bullshit, but that’s what this boils down to.

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A linkage gallimaufrey

The internet is full of things, and many of those things are wonderful gems of linguistic interest. Here are some of the language-related links that have recently caught my eye:

As if on cue, Kyle Kallgren just this week posted a video on William Shakespeare’s Star Wars as what we can hope is the first of this year’s Summer of Shakespeare series. It’s a nice corrective and counterpoint to the grousing I did in my previous post, and Kallgren highlights a whole lot of what Doescher does right in capturing the Shakespearean style in his book series. (And I note that in a couple of the examples he cites, there are, contrary to my impressions, a couple of yous sprinkled in Doescher’s verse. Though I’m still convinced he’s not doing those protocols justice, I’m also happy to not be entirely right about his work.) Kallgren is very smart and funny, and always worth watching on the subject of Shakespeareana in particular; I linked to his magisterial takedown of the painfully stupid Anonymous in my last post, but all his commentary on Shakespeare on film will reward your attention.

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Nearer the Force to thee

“For in much wisdom is much grief,” wrote the author of Ecclesiastes, “and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.” And if you don’t believe it, watch a costume drama with a historian sometime.

I cast some shade on my fellow nerds last week for our preoccupation with minutiae, but it’s also true that sometimes deep knowledge of a subject makes it hard to appreciate things that brush against it in a, shall we say, less immersive way. They could have at least made some effort to get the details right is the eternal lament of anyone who has just seen their field of interest given a half-cocked treatment in some bit of commercial media, and none of us who grumble about such things ever really understand that we are too narrow a band of the intended audience to make that effort worthwhile. So it goes.

One of my fields of interest is Shakespeare, and I’m just deeply immersed enough in that subject to be the guy who’s not much fun when I trip over a mistake that misrepresents some odd detail of Shakespeareana. But I have to admit that we Bardophiles have it pretty good; while we do occasionally have to roll our eyes at the moonbat chemtrail reptoid fever dreams of the Oxfordians, or grit our teeth just a little when someone misquotes “Alas, poor Yorick,” those are relatively minor annoyances in a world where there’s a movie of young Magneto in the Scottish Play. So I really do try my best to be a good sport and not grouse over things no one but me cares about because they weren’t memorizing soliloquys back in high school just because it seemed like it would be fun.

By most measures, William Shakespeare’s Star Wars by Ian Doescher should have hit the mark for me. Doescher has an admirably good ear for Shakespearean cadence and word choice, he doesn’t make a hash of early modern English morphology, and his verse scans nicely. He’s made what could have been a one-off joke into a thing that works better than it probably has any right to over an extended series, and so he gets a lot of credit for doing something clever and doing it, in many respects, very well. And yet all the same, when my famous author friend Mike loaned me a copy, I found myself bouncing off what to almost anyone else would seem like a trivial detail – so trivial, in fact, that it can be distilled to a single word, and that word is you.

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In which your humble author catches up at last to 2008

I am not by any stretch a Luddite, but nor am I anyone’s idea of an early adopter. I carried a flip phone well into the twenty-teens; I picked up a netbook just as they teetered on the edge of permanent obsolescence; the era of the iPod passed me by pretty much entirely. So what I’m saying is, at the room party of technology, I’m as often as not the guy who shows up just in time for the good beer to be gone and when the last remnants of the artichoke dip have been crusted over for an hour already.

All of which is to serve as preamble for what the heck took me so long as I announce that, after years of hesitant vacillation, I am now on the Tweetie, where you can follow me as @2ndLevelBard if you feel so inclined.

Apologies for the delay.