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.