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I've been engaged in an online discussion with a woman who is looking for The Rules in grammar and usage. None of that milk-and-water descriptivism will do; she wants prescriptivism, and she takes it neat. Because grammar has Rules, and educated, literate people know them and follow them, all else dismissible as ignorant babble.

It fell to me to point out that there are no certainties, only judgments.

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Of course English grammar has rules, scads of them. Even non-standard constructions like "Me and Madison are going to the mall" follow observable grammatical principles. But the rules are complicated, with subtle variances and many exceptions. It requires judgment to apply them aptly on particular occasions.

I offered her Garner on Usage, Garner on Grammar, and Butterfield's Fowler (omitting Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage for fear her head might explode). She's suspicious of them. Are they really thoroughgoing prescriptivist, or are they wishy-washy?

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There are people out there willing to sell you certainties, as ever, the best lacking conviction, the worst full of passionate intensity. You could buy Gwynne's Grammar. But the certainties always come with an admixture of exploded superstitions and class shibboleths.

Rosemarie Ostler's Founding Grammars demonstrates how a suggestion in one grammar manual gets universalized into a rule in the next. We've seen that in the way that Henry Fowler's wistful suggestion that it would be nice to distinguish that/which clauses has become a law for many editors, even though the supposed rule has many exceptions.

Suggestions become rules become fetishes because of people's craving for certainty, and craving for certainty in usage is endemic among editors.

I'm informed that the new edition of the Associated Press Stylebook is on its way to me, and I will use it gladly. Much as I chaff its editors, I find it quite useful. It spares me having to work out how to abbreviate U.S. military ranks; and when the editors tell me to write 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals instead of Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, I'm down with that. But I don't swoon over its arrival, and when its editors give ludicrous advice, I flout it cheerfully (some would say gleefully).

A helpful corrective to the desire for certainty is Jan Freeman's edition of Ambrose Bierce's Write It Right. Bierce's book, from 1909, abounds in certainties, proclaimed in a no-nonsense authoritative tone that will brook no contradiction. And yet, a century later, his strictures look odd or quaint. Some are so arbitrary that the reader has to guess the reasoning behind them. Neither can you be sure today that the strictures those authoritative voices shout at you are free from idiosyncratic personal preferences.

If you are an editor like me, you ply your little coracle amid the swells of language. You have your own tastes, formed by years of wide and thoughtful reading. You have the examples of the best writers you see currently published. You have authorities, like Garner, Butterfield, and MWDEU, whose disparate views and advice you sift. You have a sense of the varying registers of English and of which may be most suitable for your author, your subject, your occasion, your publication, and—most important—your reader. You have a memory of your past judgments and how they turned out for good or ill. These are the tools of your navigation.

What you do not have is certainty.

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