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Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Steven Pinker on the false fronts in the language wars. - Slate Magazine

The main point for Pinker's article in Slate seems to be a response to a critical article about him in The New Yorker about another article he wrote about language.  Got that?

But, fortunately, not lost in that "I'm right" "No, I'm right" battle is Pinker's clear description of the issue. The issue: Are the rules of writing and grammar "prescriptive" or "descriptive"?

Briefly, as I see it, a strict prescriptivist attitude is that many rules of writing are to be followed by everyone all the time; they're "prescribed" to aid communication among writers and readers. On the other hand, a strict descriptivist attitude (perhaps a contradictory phrase) is that the rules are not set in concrete; instead, they "describe" only how many people use language at a given time.

As Pinker points out, that debate also surrounds the production and use of dictionaries. Editors and proponents of some mainstream dictionaries contend  the words and definitions describe only how words are being used when the dictionary is published; thus, words can have many, even contradictory meanings. Critics and publishers of some other dictionaries contend that, for dictionaries to be useful, they must provide the only acceptable definitions (or, at least, they must emphasize the preferred definitions).

I fall in the prescriptivist camp, as a writer, editor, website publisher, blogger, and occasional writing instructor and adviser. But I also recognize the undeniable and acceptable fact that some words and terms do change in their common use and their preferred use. And so the rules must change.

The latest "big name" change, for example, is the decision by the Associated Press to allow the adverb "hopefully" to modify an entire sentence and not just a particular verb, other adverb or adjective in a sentence. (Much has been written about use of that word. Though not the clearest, most comprehensive discussion, here's what Wikipedia says about it; I may revise this link later.)

For decades, as a prescriptivist, I followed AP's advice -- its prescribed rule -- on using hopefully in my own writing and writing I edited. The editors and writers I worked with didn't have to discuss its use whenever the word appeared. We simply changed it (corrected it), citing AP as the reason. Doing that saved us time, energy and brain power. And, most importantly, preventing endless debates on use of that word -- and on other prescribed styles --- helped us meet deadlines.

BUT, at least for hopefully, our fine editorial work ignored reality. Everyone who isn't a full-time editor or writer in the prescriptivist mode uses hopefully "incorrectly." Fortunately, AP (and other style guides) are recognizing that using hopefully in the same way I used "fortunately" at the start of this sentence does not confuse readers. They get it!

I've gone off here on a bit of a tangent about hopefully. But, hopefully, my comments provide some clarity on the value of prescriptive style -- but a prescriptive style that's open-minded. Writing gurus and editors need to be open-minded enough to accept changes when long-time styles no longer reflect common use -- and will continue to be used "against the rules" no matter what editors and style manuals have to say about it.

I encourage you to read Pinker's article -- and my own "prescriptivist" editorial writing guide: Garbl's Editorial Style Manual. Pinker's article, BTW, is featured in today's (June 5) edition of my Write Style: Editorial Choices paper. It's available by free subscription and in the Editorial Style link at the top of this blog.



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