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News You Don't Say

The persistence of ignorance

A couple of years ago at Slate, Farhad Manjoo posted a little rant about people who insist on typing two spaces after a period, even though in our age of computerized proportional type it is not only unnecessary but contraindicated. The article proved to be so successful at what H.L. Mencken liked to call "stirring up the animals" that Slate republished it last month. The recent results were equally gratifying.

Though somewhat more literate than the "your a moron" comments one commonly encounters on the Internet, the responses nicely match intemperance with ignorance. My favorites are the ones that insist that APA and Chicago insist on two spaces after a period, even though the fifth paragraph of Mr. Manjoo's article points out that that is not so.

The comments on Mr. Manjoo's article prompted James Harbeck to reflect at Sesquiotica on the stubbornness of the two-space adherents. It is a little sad that he must point out that things we were taught in elementary school and high school no longer apply, and may well have been incorrect back then:

"Usually this is because you aren’t quite at a level to understand the matter exactly correctly; you will find this in university, too – linguistics students are constantly being told that what they learned in a previous-level course was actually a bit oversimplified. Sometimes the school curriculum hasn’t caught up with reality. In some places, due to politics, the curricula are impervious to established reality on some important points. But also, students are sometimes taught things that aren’t in the curriculum but that the teacher just happens to believe. This is how many mistaken beliefs about grammar have been spread."

Particularly about grammar. Sidney Greenbaum's Oxford English Grammar runs to 650 pages, Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum's Cambridge Grammar of the English Language to 1,860. Instruction of the young in grammar and usage, when it occurs at all these days, is necessarily simplified. Hell, oversimplified. For that matter, when I review grammar and usage for my undergraduates at the beginning of each semester, there are many subtleties that I have to forgo; they're dazed enough as it is. 

One would like to think that as people grow older, more knowledgeable, more sophisticated, they would be able to move beyond schoolroom simplicities. But, as with the two-space diehards, they instead clutch at them.

We see it in the supposedly professional writers in journalism. They may produce prose as dense as mahogany, but, by gum, they never allow an adverb to fall between the auxiliary and the main verb. We see it as well among copy editors, who imagine that, after they have "fixed" the "split verbs" and manipulated the placement of only in a sentence, what they have done constitutes editing.

We see it in the responses to articles about singular they. Some, like Mr. Manjoo's readers, oppose reflexively without even looking at the evidence. Those who do look at the evidence, from reputable published writers over five or six centuries, or in citations of everyday prose that they read over without even noticing the "error," will acknowledge that there is something to it, "but I just don't like it; it's not what I was taught." Stan Carey remarks at Sentence First, "I find it strange when someone declares they don’t like singular they: it’s like hearing they don’t like socks, or carrots."

People hold on to simplicities as an anchor against the flux of time and circumstance. The rules we were taught, even if they were not rules, even if they were wrong-headed, are little certainties we can clasp to our bosoms. Whenever someone tries to take them away from us, we hold on tighter. 

And indeed, some of them, though wrong, are harmless. Type two spaces after a period if you like. Your editor's software is programmed to delete those extra spaces on command. It's not as if you are doing something reprehensible, like smuggling creationism into the science textbooks to miseducate the young.

I have less patience, though, when ignorant simplicities impinge on professional work. Writers and editors ought to be receptive to new information, to evidence that they have been misguided. Devotees of The Elements of Style should pay attention to Geoffrey Pullum's glee at pointing out the passages in which E.B. White violates his own precepts. Plural they-ists who write and edit for their bread are obliged to look beyond their personal tastes and prejudices.

Ignorance may be comfortable, but it is not charming.

 

 

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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