John McIntyre

The mistake of taking the hard line

Commenting from Albion, the estimable Picky recently wrote: "As I look back on a very privileged life I note that although the language I spoke mostly as a child was that of the London streets, my parents (typically of the upper working class in those days they enriched English by reading Dickens and Trollope and Austen to each other in the evenings - anyone do that nowadays?) and my school together provided me also with something very close to standard English, and I traded on that, essentially made my living from it, for the rest of my life. People who tell me that 'ain't' is perfectly good English dating back to Hengist and Horsa or Whoever are right, of course, but more important is knowing when 'ain't' is OK and when it ain't. People who shy from passing that sort of stuff on to others may be very clever and very knowledgeable about language, but they are not doing their fellows any favours at all."

He has, characteristically, summarized the essence of the enterprise of this blog in the sentence I've boldfaced.


You can, if you rummage about long enough in the OED or one or another corpus of the language, find examples of almost anything. You have to evaluate who wrote what and when and for whom to determine whether a usage is appropriate today for standard, written, presumably edited prose for publication.

You can also, without much rummaging at all, find an abundance of bad advice, promulgating bogus rules* and rigid strictures that would slap a coat of battleship gray over every sentence you write.


Since I am by trade and inclination of the prescriptivist class, it is the distinctively prescriptivist sin of narrowness and rigidity about which I have to be most vigilant. The easiest thing for a copy editor to do is to say, "That's our style," without considering whether (a) the style rule makes any sense in the first place or (b) it is appropriate on this occasion.

A few years ago, one of our features writers wanted to use the word chile in a food article, and the copy desk changed it to chili. The writer appealed to me, and I said reflexively, "Chili is our style." Once having invoked Our House Style, of course, I could not back down when the writer remonstrated, though in my heart I knew that the writer's arguments about the prevalence of his usage in writing about cookery were sound.

On appeal to higher authority, I was overruled, and here is the happy result: The writer walked away muttering at the ignorance and inflexibility of the copy desk, and I was irritated at being overruled and at being dimly conscious of having been in the wrong.

It was a little thing, but the little things add up. They especially add up for prescriptivists, for whom each little thing is that line in the sand, that leak in the dike, or that other inappropriate metaphor invoked for the Defense of the Purity of the Language.

We need rules less than we need guidelines, inflexibility less than we need judgment. The whole trick in editing is figuring out when it's OK to use ain't and when it ain't.

*A friend on Facebook apologized today for a sentence ending in a preposition. Damn you, John Dryden, I can forgive almost anything for the author of "Mac Flecknoe" and those lovely translations of Virgil's Georgics, but I wish to God you had kept your mouth shut about stranded prepositions in English.