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.

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.

Pining for the fnords

Not a word is a phrase the volunteer grammar militia like to deploy as if it’s a tactical warhead, a megaton-level delivery of dismissal and shame meant to obliterate whatever invention or mutation is too recent to have been granted what they imagine is legitimacy by appearing in The Dictionary. It’s pretty much a paper tiger, of course, because “not a word” is not an argument, and that’s not what the dictionary is for, but at least when you see it you’re getting fair warning of exactly the kind of insufferable fusspot you’re dealing with.

Meanwhile, for most of us, a “word” is a collection of letters with a recognizable meaning, even if its usage is disreputable or in an informal register. But once in a while, the odd corners and alleys of culture give us an interesting edge case. Take, for example, the wordlike phoneme string fnord, which I’m guessing you likely haven’t stumbled across unless your social or aesthetic pursuits have brought you into the circle of the Discordians.

Discordianism is fascinating all by itself: a phemonenon unique in religious history for its commitment to being both a satire of religion and a practiceable faith in equal measure. That should give you an idea of the territory we’re entering here; as a Discordian of my acquaintance once said, “Nothing a Discordian tells you is either entirely serious or entirely in jest,” and that’s a pretty good rundown of the least you need to know when looking into the fnord question.

“Fnord” is a term without a definition (though it does have a Wikipedia entry) used by Discordians as a shorthand for Erisian weirdness, a marker of irony, and a signal of in-group mutual understanding among the initiated. It’s not quite an interjection, but it serves the function of a wink or a sly aside, like a more abstracted LOL for absurdists and anarchists. It’s a “word” invented to have no direct referent, indeed to resist all attempts at being defined; all connotation and no denotation. And in the circles where it’s used, it’s survived for half a century now, which is pretty impressive staying power for something with a meaning intended to stand as a perpetual question mark.

(Now, I can well imagine a Discordian saying that of course fnord has a definition, it’s just that the un-Illuminated are unable to grasp it. It doesn’t take long among Discordians to understand that this is part of the game. The brilliance of fnord is that it’s a mystery disguising itself as a secret, and the joke’s on anyone who can’t tell the difference between the two.)

Douglas Hofstadter, in his essay “Stuff and Nonsense” in Metamagical Themas (a work I regrettably don’t have in front of me, so I’m writing from memory here), wrote about the compelling quality of nonsense – in verse in particular, but other media as well – to suggest that there’s some key piece of information the reader is missing that would make everything clear if only it were revealed. Invented words can be perfectly compact meaning-delivery units when they’re made up of the intuitively right parts; they can also be distillations of that maddening feeling that well-crafted nonsense has to hover just at the edge of meaning without ever coming into view. And some of them slide back and forth across the slippery border between meaning and meaninglessness in interesting ways. I suppose lots of  people in the language fields find contemplating that ambiguous space disconcerting, but I’m fascinated by it, and if you are too, you should come sit next to me. Hail Eris! Fnord!

And yet it changes

Anthimeria is the formal term for when a word is used as another part of speech – what happens when nouns are verbed (and vice versa), when adjectives slide into noun- or verb-hood, when nouns get stacked adjectivally onto other nouns. Mrs. Badcrumble probably told you not to do it. You probably do it anyway.

And well you should. Anthimeria is part of the play of language change that makes English vital and alive. It was a major force in Shakespeare’s wordplay toolkit (from the lowly gravedigger’s “Cudgel thy brains no more about it” in Hamlet to the Duke of York’s “Grace me no grace nor uncle me no uncle” in Richard II), and remains indisepensible to the way we navigate the shifting landscape of technology and information – like the way the adjective in text message becomes a noun when we send a text, and is then further verbed to the concise, efficient text me.

It’s not always elegant; we might cringe a little when managers talk about liaising and leveraging (though we must admit, we also know precisely what they mean), but a few missteps are worth the joy of seeing a living language grow and adapt.

Because adapt it surely will, and no amount of standing athwart it yelling Stop will do any good to halt the millions of speakers who make English do what they need it to do, and serve the purposes they need it to serve, in their day-to-day lives. For living things, adaptation is survival, and repurposing existing parts for new uses is a highly successful survival strategy. Language scolds and grammar cops like to imagine a time when English was pure and perfect – usually thirty or fifty or a hundred years ago – but even if we accept that it was (it wasn’t), the world of those times didn’t know it would someday need to describe a telecommute where you receive a download that you later save to the cloud. The kinds of language change illustrated in that one scenario – portmanteau, anthimeria, semantic shift – have happened, and continue to happen, because we need new linguistic tools to match our physical (and virtual) ones.

Galileo may not have actually said eppur si muove, at least not where the Inquisition would have heard him, but it’s a good tale anyway and a good model for lovers of language. We might not approve of every vicissitude English undergoes, but it doesn’t ask for our approval; and yet it changes, will we or no, so we might as well study its movements with curiosity and inquisitiveness rather than judgment or sorrow.

“In street English, anthimeria runs rampant,” wrote professional wordsmith Nancy Friedman a decade ago (adjectivizing street in a way that even Shakespeare wouldn’t have immediately recognized), speaking fondly of a host of colorful colloquial repurposings. And of course, we’ve also rung a change on rampant too, from the days when it was a word that described the upright, aggressive, slightly off-balance attitude of heraldic beasts like the gryphon[1] that sits atop the sidebar. That strikes me as not a bad image for the English language: a fantastical creature made of composite parts, whose name isn’t even spelled the same way consistently, magnificent and terrible and the stuff of endlessly inventive stories. (Story isn’t merely one of the functions of language, after all; story is what language is.) We do it the most honor by telling its tale not as a lament for a golden age now lost, but as one that looks forward with hope and wonder, marvelling at what it might become next.


[1]Which I am at pains to point out is not strictly rampant, at least according to the fine points of heraldic blazon, but segreant, a term reserved for the rampant attitude in fantastical creatures such as dragons and gryphons that have four legs and wings. There, how’s that for peevery?