Luke’s Languages: The only sane course is flexibility


Hey, everyone. It is now endgame, and frankly I’m impressed you’re still taking time to read a newspaper at this point in the semester (and flattered that you chose this article).

When I started this column two Septembers ago, my first piece was on prescriptivism versus descriptivism. Prescriptivism is essentially the belief that some language is better than other language. It comes with a pack of related beliefs: that certain forms of language are purer, more correct, more grammatical, more logical, more efficient at communicating, more beautiful, more advisable. Descriptivism, on the other hand, is the campaign to neutrally describe and analyze all language, whatever its status.

Which is the philosophy of a linguist? By now, you can probably recognize that it’s descriptivism. Linguistics is not—contrary to the answers high school students give for why they’re enrolling in LIN100—the pursuit of the “best” language. It’s the scientific study of language without gradation. In order to understand why prescriptivism is of little help here, you need to be disabused of a number of myths, many of which I’ve talked about in this series. But now I’ll be explicit.

Here are a few facts that lead to that realization: As far as can be told by human behaviour, no language is on the whole more effective at communicating (although the concepts a language most handily addresses may vary) or more capable of logical relation. The perception of linguistic beauty is highly subjective according to which language you speak. All languages have a grammar, in that they all have regular structure, correct and incorrect utterances, patterns of sounds, words, discourse, and more. What is alleged to be linguistically pure is proportional to social prestige, be it the respect of eldership, wealth, nobility, or simple popularity. Not only conventions (of which punctuation is particularly variable) constantly undergo change, and acceptability is largely determined by arbitrary regulation.

As for advisability, here’s an illustration. I volunteer at a Sunday school, and one day we were doing a trust exercise where one child led another, blindfolded, around obstacles. When a group came to a place where they had to limbo, the leader said, “Duck… okay, now unduck!” Curious about the child’s innovation, I asked another child later whether he thought “unduck” was a word, and he said no. He’s right in that you won’t find it in a dictionary. The average language purist probably takes this as a sign of the carelessness of parents raising their children and the lack of education. But this is perfect nonsense. All of their “careful” language came about in the same way. I find this particular child’s innovation genius because it demonstrates the arbitrariness of our rules: we all understand exactly what “unduck” means. Even the kid who said it wasn’t a word suggested some synonyms for me. But for purely non-linguistic reasons, we deem it unacceptable.

Yep, a good linguist is firmly descriptivist—just fascinated by the patterns and explanations of language, not preoccupied with what it “should” be.

Okay. Now look at the title under my name at the top of this article: “copy editor”. The job of a copy editor is to fix mistakes in the article, to bring the language in line with the standard. I am paid to identify that the phrases “they wont play their best”, “instill participation”, and “a third year student” are all wrong and need to be corrected. That’s pure prescriptivism. And I’m very emotionally attached to it, thank you very much.

The interesting question is, how do I choose what’s correct? One hint is that it could never automated. Yes, we all learned the basic rules of English in high school, but even if you memorized them all and could analyze every sentence you face, it wouldn’t be enough. They rarely give you clear directions on how to solve problems. Most of what I knew when I applied came not from them but from the intuitive and alert reading of well-edited books—a kind of mini-descriptivism.

My job would be impossible without research. I often consult The Medium’s style guide (The Canadian Press Stylebook). Well-respected books like Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style can be very helpful. Failing those, I compare the arguments and examples on grammar or dictionary websites (some are more reliable than others), or consult with other editors (I’m lucky enough to have a professional editor for a mother). If worst comes to worst, sometimes a slightly advanced use of Google can turn the Internet into a worldwide corpus of how, and how often, people use a given term.

You might wonder what makes it so hard to find the correct usage. I discovered very early that this is a fundamental misconception about copy-editing, and a fundamental flaw in prescriptivism: the assumption that there is always a correct usage. In reality, only a few rules seem to follow from our use of language, which is itself changing; the rest are editorial convention. And most are disputed. Different style guides abound, and they all recommend different things. Of course, certain patterns represent clearly defined camps, like American or British style. Canadians have it harder, since we can’t agree on what to glean from each side.

In some cases a generalization can never be always correct. Take the serial comma, the comma before the last item in a list (“poems, stories, and essays” vs. “poems, stories and essays”). Every style guide dictates differently if and when you use it. But both options can be made to sound wrong. If I say, “I’d like to thank my parents, Madonna and God,” you wonder why I think Madonna and God are my parents. A comma after “Madonna” solves the issue. But in the case of “I’d like to thank my mother, Madonna, and God,” the same comma makes Madonna my mother, and the sentence would be clearer without it. The only sane course is flexibility.

Flexibility is not leniency, and that’s the issue on which the job rests. Leniency means serving a rule, but not always enforcing it. Flexibility means knowing when to override the rule. And if judgement is required for a problem of punctuation like the serial comma, where the options are very clearly laid out, then judgement is much, much more involved in the problems of logic and word choice.

As a copy editor, I deal with thousands of these issues as I go through the paper every week. Most of them are even more invisible to the casual reader. But they probably shouldn’t be visible. If there’s one reliable rule of prescriptivism, at least for the pragmatic purposes of publication, it’s to communicate effectively. The copy editor must reduce the effort to readers by making explicit what is implicit, improving the formal connectivity of ideas, replacing or reordering words to make the author’s meaning clearer, and tightening the excess. And as for the minutiae, they serve to level the playing field by bringing the writing in line with a standard—more conventions means fewer ambiguities and surprises for the reader.

Of course, this means flouting convention is a good way to surprise. For all the work I’ve done and the love I have for rules, what I find delightful in this job is the same as I find in linguistics: seeing someone use language in a new way, a way informed by and so standing in contrast to convention.

Okay, that’s all for now. Thanks for reading along this year!

  • remorsefulauthor

    “gradation”? What did I even mean by that? More like “ranking”

    • Luke

      and “never be always correct” = “never be correct in every case”? :p