Run it up the flagpole and see who salutes

The Baltimore Sun

Over at The Stroppy Editor,* Tom Freeman discovers in vexillology, the study of flags, a perfect analog to the disputes between the peeververein and linguists. 

Graham Bartram, chief vexillologist of the Flag Institute, explains that the pedant's delight in distinguishing between the Union Jack (flown at sea) and the Union Flag (flown on land) has no foundation. 

Historically, official documents made no such distinction. Mr. Graham believes that the distinction was invented during the Victorian era: "They’ve been made up by just people writing one thing in a book, and people then read it and say ‘that’s the law’ when in fact it’s not the law." At the Flag Institute, "we’re backing the fact that the flag has no official name, and you can call it a Flag or you can call it a Jack, and which one you use is entirely up to you."

I think you can imagine likely reactions: "Damn my eyes, I'm not giving up a rule I've followed all my adult life just because some officious twit says that lots of people have violated it. I've followed that rule ever since an editor corrected me rudely and publicly when I was yet a green lad, and I'm not abandoning it now."

You should be able to hear in this an echo of the resistance to empirical evidence that linguists and lexicographers face when they describe how language actually operates. 

Mr. Freeman comments: "This is the purest expression I’ve ever seen of pedantry as social ideology: that observance of fiddly little so-called rules is a marker of status."

The question that we as editors have to ask ourselves is whether a convention of usage we follow carries a distinction of meaning that is useful to the reader, or is merely some shibboleth of social status or of our imagined superiority to the writer.

The over/more than distinction beloved of the Associated Press Stylebook appears to have been invented by newspaper editors and disregarded by just about everyone else. The that/which distinction, which H.W. Fowler merely recommended as something that would be desirable to adopt, has fossilized into a rule. An editor I know recently wrote that while she might bend on comprise, they're not going to take that/which from her until they pry it from her cold, dead hand. 

It's a slippery business determining what distinctions are useful to maintain. I'm doling firm on imply/infer and a number of others. I try to keep my homonyms straight. But I dropped the over/more than nonsense some time back, and when I allow a singular they intro print, the villagers don't come down to Calvert Street with their pitchforks and torches. 

Thoreau remarked, "Any fool can make a rule and every fool will mind it." We in the business of editing tend to treat conventions as rules. We follow made-up rules that somebody imposed upon us years ago without checking them against the real-world usage of literate speakers and writers. We resist challenges to those long-held customs, and we expend valuable time on them when we could be doing more productive editing. When we talk about them, as you can see on any Internet discussion board, especially those for writers and editors, much of the discourse quickly degenerates to Somebody Told Me This Once And I Always Do It Because It Must Be So. 

I almost feel myself becoming stroppy. 



*Lovely British word, stroppy, meaning cranky and belligerent, with an overtone of obstinacy. You could even apply it to me if I weren't such a sunny soul. 


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