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Absence of doubt

It's all right. You can come back in now. I've stopped nagging the children about St. Patrick's Day.

All the same, there was an invincible certainty about their St. Paddy/St. Patty views. What they knew, they knew, and any information that conflicted with what they knew was to be swatted down, sometimes with a contemptuous Twitter hashtag, #morons.

It is like the certainty that one encounters with the peeving classes, the Clark Elder Morrows* and the Queen's English Society charlatans. They are impervious to doubt. Irregardless is not a word.** Singular they is an abomination in the sight of the Lord. Young people and texting are ruining the language. &c., &c., &c. Though not quite carried down by Moses on Sinai, the Rules are there, the Rules of schoolroom grammar, garmmra, and gammon, and they are eternal.

I fear that in my twenties I may have been nearly as great a prat myself, glorying in the superiority of vocabulary and usage that is pretty much the only thing an English major has to glory in. But with years of reading and writing and editing has come the paradoxical realization that the more one learns, the less certainty one has. Just as you sometimes find that you have for years been mispronouncing a word you knew only from reading, you also discover that some convention of usage that you have been routinely applying is more complex and variable than you thought.

Other editors and writers come up to me in The Sun's newsroom with questions about usage and house style. Often it's a simple question of applying the AP Stylebook's strictures or Sun precedent, but even then I wonder afterward about my decision. Did I apply a rule too mechanically? I have in the past. And should I have taken AP and precedent at face value in the first place?

Judgments become even more difficult at the points at which the language is shifting. Allow singular they? Insist on whom or allow who as object as well as subject? And in this text but not that one, because context and audience differ?

Make no mistake: I make the judgments, though they are somewhat more latitudinarian than they used to be. I'm an editor, and all editors are to some degree prescriptivist, because we are required to make those judgments and enforce the publication's standards. But any editor who is any good will be thinking about those judgments and weighing second thoughts.


*If you want me to stop disparaging Mr. Morrow, find me another whipping boy. But before you do, read this description, which he may well have written himself, for Fowler's sake, and then tell me how much respect he should be accorded.

**At Sesquiotica, James Harbeck has dealt thoroughly with the "not a word" nonsense and has also provided a link to the views of the delightful Annie Wei-Yu Kan (say the name out loud) on the subject.

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