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Take this prescription and call me in the morning

Slate.com has discovered logomachy.*

An article by Robert Lane Greene, “Revenge of the Language Nerds,” was posted on Thursday, July 13 (http://www.slate.com/id/2143324/). It reviews Far From the Madding Gerund, essays from Language Log (q.v., http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/ ) by Mark Liberman and Geoffrey Pullum.

Mr. Greene has some remarks on the eternal struggle between the prescriptivists and descriptivists, pointing out that the prescriptivists have published a lot of books but that the descriptivists catch up with this one.

It is wholesome for him to point out that the caricature of the descriptivist viewpoint — that anything a native speaker of English says or writes is by definition legitimate — is a straw man. No serious linguist thinks that.

Unfortunately, in describing the “militant grammarians” such as David Foster Wallace, the author of a well-reasoned critique of the philosophical underpinnings of descriptivism, Mr. Greene presents the other straw man, the prescriptivist as the blind follower of nonsensical rules about not splitting infinitives and not ending sentences with prepositions.

If Mr. Greene had paid closer attention to the Wallace essay that he cites, a review in Harper’s of Bryan Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, he would have found there a robust defense of reasonable and informed descriptivism. It is in Garner’s original book and in the revised Garner’s Modern American Usage, after all, that one finds an entry on superstitions of usage, among them the prohibitions on splitting infinitives and ending sentences with prepositions. 

My eminent colleague, Bill Walsh, has presented workshops at the annual jamborees of the American Copy Editors Society on “Rules That Aren’t Rules,” and his books, Lapsing into a Comma and The Elephants of Style are striking examples of reasonable prescriptivism.

And in its own little way, this blog has tried to explain repeatedly that there are fewer rules of English that many people have been taught, that thoughtful writers and editors acknowledge changes and variations in the language, but that the anyone wishing to write precisely has to make judgments. The enterprise that my fellow copy editors and I have embarked on, despite the drubbings we get from Mr. Pullum’s colleagues at Language Log, is to formulate reasonable judgments.

But read the Slate article — and the Wallace article — and form your own conclusions.

*(For a definition, see You Don’t Say #37, “There is a word for it,” May 3, 2006.)

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