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.

Advertisements

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

“Grammar, Stanley.”

Sometime last summer[1], I became a dedicated fan of the Disney XD animated series Gravity Falls – a show that seems to produce dedicated fans almost to the exclusion of any other kind. If your sensibilities are anything like mine, it’s easy to see why; GF is a real delight, a sort of X-files-meets-Twin Peaks-by-way-of-The Simpsons (all acknowledged influences on creator Alex Hirsch) that’s both a satire of and homage to the canon of supernatural mysteries, conspiracy thrillers, and coming-of-age stories. It’s all played for laughs, but that doesn’t stop it from having some genuinely creepy moments along the way, in the mold of the best remember-this-is-a-cartoon-for-children shows of the last two decades or so.[2] Indeed, the show’s genius in balancing those and other elements is a big part of its enduring appeal.

Another thing that’s appealing about Gravity Falls (especially to late adopters like me) is that it was always conceived as a finite story – it takes place over the course of a single summer, giving it a chance to build a genuinely sequential through-line and a story arc with a satisfying beginning, middle, and end. When the show’s final episodes – the multi-part “Weirdmageddon” storyline – aired this past winter, it was the payoff to a cluster of plot seeds that had been planted early and nurtured slowly over the years of the series’ run time.

As well as being a solidly entertaining hour-plus of television (and bear with me, I promise I’m building to something language-related here), the series finale had some great moments of subverting the expectations of the type of story GF is modeled on. One of these takes place during what looks like it’s about to be the great climactic moment of victory for the heroes – the reveal of a prophecy that’s been mysteriously hinted at since the early episodes, and which is the key to defeating the series’ omnipotent, diabolical arch-villain Bill Cipher. And the sideways turn that scene takes hinges on a moment of decidedly linguistic interest.

(Hereafter be SPOILERS, obviously – not just for the series ending, but for a major reveal of one of the show’s key mysteries that happens two-thirds of the way through the second season. If you haven’t seen Gravity Falls and would rather discover its secrets in the order its creator and writers intended, this is your last chance to turn away.)

Continue reading

The editor’s role

On Friday, I was talking with a long-time colleague – my mentor in the world of instructional design, which is the other professional hat I wear – over a postmortem lunch for the project whose conclusion has now put us both back, as it were, On The Market.

As part of his we-were-so-lucky-to-have-you speech (which, believe me, the editor or writer on your workforce appreciates beyond rubies, even if it does make them a little embarassed), I got to hear some war stories about my predecessor on this team: an Oxford-educated editor of the Mrs. Badcrumble or Miss Thistlebottom school, who once gathered everyone for an emergency meeting so she could berate them on their grammatical shortcomings – a list that (of course) included a bunch of the old superstitions of grammar nitpickery. A veteran which-hunter, in other words.

This sort of thing is quite bad enough, even though I’ve grown used to being unwillingly represented by the most myopic practitioners of my craft, but it gets even better. The thing that really floored me was when my colleague told me about his efforts trying to submit a draft to this editor. He’s a natural collaborator; we share, among other things, an ethos of pride in the work but not ego, so he makes liberal use of the comments feature to tag his drafts with notes asking if such-and-such wording makes sense or has the right tone or is sufficiently supported in the rest of the piece. You know – all the things a writer’s supposed to do.

The response he got was, “I don’t know about any of that. I’m just the editor.”

Folks, gentlebeings, let us explore the ways in which this is Wrong Wrong Wrongity Wrong.

Continue reading

Struck Funk

The Elements of Style belongs on every editor’s bookshelf, but not for the reasons you might think.

To get this out of the way first: It’s not a very good writing book. For a rundown of why this is so, Geoffrey Pullum’s 2009 Lingua Franca essay “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice” remains a thorough guide to the many faults of the “Little Book,” ranging from its innocuous-but-largely-useless style advice (“Be clear,” as if one generally sets out to do otherwise) to its truly wrongheaded guidance on grammar, exemplified by the dog’s breakfast it makes of its discussion on the passive voice. Strunk and White certainly had a lot of advice for writers, but very little sense of when they themselves were following it (which they often weren’t), and even less actual knowledge of the grammar they purported to be authorities on, leading Pullum to conclude, “English syntax is a deep and interesting subject. It is much too important to be reduced to a bunch of trivial don’t-do-this prescriptions by a pair of idiosyncratic bumblers who can’t even tell when they’ve broken their own misbegotten rules.”

Continue reading