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Schoolroom shibboleths

By John McIntyre

The Baltimore Sun

1:12 PM EDT, September 15, 2013

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This is what I'm up against. 

A blogger writing at A Few Reasonable Words discovers that the Chicago Manual of Style does not endorse everything his ninth-grade English teacher told him and proceeds to this discovery:

I ... did found the Baltimore Sun, no less, giving up the ghost on “who” and “whom,” being (too) tolerant of lapses in observing the distinction between “which” and “that,” and (sort of) smiling on the use of they/their as singular. Oh the horror!  This from John E. McIntyre, a past president of the American Copy Editors Society!

You see, it is not necessary to respond to argument or examine evidence when one writes about grammar and usage. One merely brandishes a couple of schoolroom shibboleths, confident that the Right People will respond ("Oh the horror!"),and anyone who does not agree is an ignoramus or some kind of subversive, probably answering to a paymaster in the Kremlin. 

But the rules, real and imagined, that your ninth-grade English teacher drummed into you are not eternal verities, pure and abstract, that descended from the skies like the New Jerusalem. They are not, as Geoffrey K. Pullum says at Lingua Franca, "an unimpeachably respectable body of technical analysis."  Instead, "the traditional presentation of English grammar is a hodge-podge of simplistic semantic intuitions, irrational carry-overs from Latin, and outright analytical errors that has been in need of an upgrade for centuries." 

Or, as Henry Hitching ripely summed up in The Language Wars: “The history of prescriptions about English ... is in part a history of bogus rules, superstitions, half-baked logic, groaningly unhelpful lists, baffling abstract statements, false classifications, contemptuous insiderism and educational malfeasance. But it is also a history of attempts to make sense of the world and its bazaar of competing ideas and interests.”       

When I was interviewed twenty-eight years ago for a position on the copy desk of The New York Times, Allan Siegal asked me what reference books on usage I consulted, I mentioned Fowler's Modern English Usage, and he stopped me. "That's enough." I would have added Wilson Follett and John Bremner and a couple of others. But not any more, except for occasional historical interest. All of them are badly dated, and I am making an effort to edit texts for readers who are alive today.*

David Crystal was writing the other day about an idiotic test on grammar and usage being administered in Britain, and one commenter had this to say: "Here’s a quote from Sweet (in Palmer and Blandford’s A Grammar of Spoken English, 3rd ed, rewritten by Roger Kingdon, page xviii): 'The first object in studying grammar is to learn to observe linguistic facts as they ARE, not as they OUGHT to be, or as they were in an earlier stage of the language.'"**

That is where I have arrived. It seems to me as a practicing journalist that I ought to be writing the language as it exists, with due regard for precision and clarity, instead of what schoolteachers and self-professed usage authorities have imagined it to be. I want an audience for my writing and for my newspaper's writing. And that has meant some severe self-examination, and recognition that a good part of what I have been doing as an editor these thirty-three years and as a teacher these eighteen, has been outdated, misguided, or wrong-headed. 

Thus posts here about who/whom, which/that, singular they, and other subjects, about which you will find no information at A Few Reasonable Words. Thus my campaign to goose the Associated Preess Stylebook to abandon some of its more hidebound stands, to limited effect. Thus efforts to explain distinctions of usage to my students so that they can make informed judgments as they write and edit instead of applying Procrustean "rules." 

Say not the struggle nought availeth. 

 

 

*If you're curious, The Times turned me down after a one-week tryout but advised me to get a job at a paper that took editing seriously and call them again in a couple of years. Somehow I never got back to them. 

**"Sweet" would be Henry Sweet, the philologist and grammarian from whom George Bernard Shaw borrowed some characteristics for Henry Higgins in Pygmalion