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.

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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Nerds, passive peeving, and fantasy diction

Stan Carey has a post up that’s yetanother much-needed rant about passive voice peevery, and how self-styled grammarians who advise against its use (in the fine tradition of Messrs. Strunk and White) can invariably be relied on to not know what the heck they’re talking about. You should go read it. I’ll wait.

The term passive voice as a grammatical concept has a specific meaning. The mechanics of it are a little arcane for the layperson; Geoff Pullum, explaining it in linguistic terms as simply as he can manage in his Language Log essay “The passive in English,” admits up-front to needing about 2500 words to do the subject justice. But in practice, it’s (mostly) fairly easy to identify – my personal favorite test is that if you can insert “by zombies” after the verb phrase, it’s passive voice. So Bob was eaten by zombies is in the passive voice, but *Bob was going by zombies home is nonsense in English, and so that “was going” is not, in fact, passive, no matter how much E.B. White and Mrs. Badcrumble were keen to convince you it is.

Also, as Pullum and other language writers (Carey among them; he’s had cause to write on this subject before) point out, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the passive voice. It’s a useful tool in the toolbox of English speech and composition, and you can do things with it that you can’t really achieve by any other means. Depriving yourself of it because some blowhard wants to shame your prose with words like “weak” and “weaselly” and “flabby” and “flat” is giving in to that prime fallacy of the peeververein (and indeed, of grayfaced puritans everywhere), that if people might possibly do something too much they should be told not to do it at all.

(On the flip side, the good news about most people not being able to identify passives even if they’ve been bitten by them is that you can often get away with using them when you need to even if you’ve been told not to. I confess that I have, on multiple occasions, turned in work containing passive constructions at places that had misguided No Passive Voice Ever rules in their stylebooks, confident that their appearance in context was so utterly natural that it would never occur to anyone to call them out, and I was right and they didn’t.)

Anyway, seeing Carey’s rant gave me cause to remember one of my own recent experiences of spotting misidentified passive peeving in the wild, and reflect on the deleterious effect it has on a demographic I’m more than a little invested in. And so to delve deeper into this particular instance of not-actually-passive-griping, we’re going to have to talk a bit about nerds.

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