First there was a brouhaha about the Oxford comma, prompted by a post at FiveThirtyEight in which I was quoted. (Click here for my post on the subject and its link to the original article.) Then screams of outrage on Twitter followed an article by Roy Peter Clark defending the use of the passive voice. (Click here to read what I had previously posted on the subject.*)
I appreciate editors who have undertaken the effort to master the Associated Press Stylebook (which is more than writers for the Associated Press trouble to do). And I understand that they still treasure that copy of Strunk and White that Aunt Mildred gave them when they first expressed an ambition to write. But it takes more than that to become expert on grammar and usage.
For the sake of newbies here at Wordville, and for others who have read but not heeded, I repeat some distinctions about the things that are rules and things that are not (and who among you will venture to stop me?).
Unnoticed rules: English, like all languages, is full or rules that native speakers use without noticing. Think about the prepositions that we use idiomatically with certain verbs or the order of adjectives (opinions, size, age, shape, color, origin, material, purpose). Those poor devils in ESL classes have to be taught these things that we use unconsciously.
Explicit rules: These are the ones you had to be taught in school as you attempted to convert what you already knew from spoken English into the conventions of written English: subject-verb agreement, pronoun agreement, active and passive voice, avoidance of misplaced modifiers.
Conventions: There are things that we habitually do that are not rules of grammar and usage, and which are subject to change. Spelling is one: we no longer write critick or dramatick, either in the United States or the British Commonwealth; either colour or color is correct, depending on the conventions where you are writing. Punctuation is another. Commas and periods go inside quotation marks in the United States, outside in Britain; stop arguing that one is more logical or aesthetically appealing than the other. We no longer put a comma between the subject and the verb, though that was common in eighteenth-century English. These conventions are neither right nor wrong; they just are.
Superstitions: Schoolroom grammar for generations has abounded in strictures that are simple, clear, memorable, and wrong. Not starting a sentence with a coordinating conjunction or ending one with a preposition. Not splitting infinitives or compound verbs. Not starting a sentence with because. Not using since for because or over for more than. Responsible authorities such as Garner's Modern American Usage and Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage have definitively disposed of these zombie rules, for those who have the wit to look things up, without making much headway against brain-dead pedagogy.
Shibboleths: Since we use language for much more than mere raw communication of explicit information, what we say and write carries multiple levels of meaning about our places of origin, our ethnic backgrounds, our levels of education, and our social status. Thus certain expressions become code words to identify those unspoken meanings. The scorn for hopefully as a sentence adverb, though it appears to be fading, has lasted for forty-odd years; if you ever used it, certain people will have concluded that you are vulgar and uneducated, though there is no warrant in grammar or the history of the language to object to it. Contact as a verb was a similar shibboleth from the 1940s into the 1960s. As you make your choices in writing and editing, you should be aware that employing certain words and phrases will enable some toffee-nosed git to look down upon you. Then you can choose whether to cater to ignorance.
House style: Usage manuals, such as the AP Stylebook and Chicago Manual of Style, indicate conventions of usage for particular publications: newspapers, academic publications, scientific and technical publications. Some are more hard-shell than others, but at bottom they are all collections of guidelines, not rules of the language. We do it this way; there are other, legitimate ways. (Try not to react, when you get your annual update of the AP Stylebook as if Moses had just carried it down from Sinai for you personally.)
Individual aesthetic preferences: You have them; I have them; most of them are harmless. You find moist distasteful for whatever obscure reason, don't use it. You get to use whatever language is consistent with your tastes and apt to the purpose. What you do not get to do is to impose your idiosyncratic preferences as strictures on other writers and speakers. English is a large democracy in which you have one vote.
*It also has a link to some of Geoffrey Pullum's fulminations about the widespread misunderstanding of the passive voice, some of which can be laid at George Orwell's door.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun