Some years ago, a friend who is, like me, an admirer of Ayn Rand and her philosophy of reason, asked me to review an article he had written. Suddenly, he interrupted our conversation with this outburst:
“How does anyone know what’s right and wrong, anyway? Everyone disagrees! Why can’t English be as logical and consistent as mathematics?”
His frustration is understandable. When it comes to matters of English grammar and usage, how can we be sure of what’s correct and what isn’t? The answers aren’t always simple.
Why is the question important? A series of articles in The Wall Street Journal reported that poor writing and speech habits can damage an executive’s career prospects. What’s more, when you express your ideas and arguments with clarity and precision, people take them more seriously and are more likely to be persuaded.
First, let’s tackle my friend’s objection. He might be happier in France, which has a government-run academy that serves as the official authority for the French language, decreeing what’s acceptable and what’s prohibited.
Here in America, fortunately, we don’t have a language dictatorship but rather something of a free market. No single oracle dispenses the ultimate answers. But that freedom comes with a tradeoff. Each of us must consider various sources of language guidance, which sometimes conflict, and make our own decisions.
Language gurus generally fall into one of two schools. The prescriptivists offer explicit rules and advice. The descriptivists advocate recording how language is used, without passing judgments.
I’m often tempted to call the second group permissivists.
Once upon a time, dictionaries were prescriptive; they functioned as authorities that told us what was right and wrong. Increasingly, however, they have become descriptive; they simply reflect language as it is used. Thus, if a sufficient number of people use a word in the wrong sense, that sense is deemed “right” by popular, “democratic” vote.
I’m not making this up! The argument never struck me as especially sane, but descriptivism is now accepted practice among many lexicographers.
When people disagree about the meaning of a word, someone is bound to say, “Let’s look it up in the dictionary.” As if that will settle everything. But as the above analysis suggests, this solution doesn’t always work.
If you need the definition of an uncontroversial word, such as modicum or portico, a dictionary is an appropriate resource to consult. The problems occur with words that are routinely misused or that have disputed meanings.
Here are three examples of prescriptivism vs. descriptivism in practice. In each case, there’s a traditional, prescribed definition and an “everyone uses it that way” — otherwise known as incorrect — meaning.
- disinterested: This word doesn’t mean uninterested. Rather, it means impartial, unbiased, having no vested interest in the matter under consideration.
- enormity: Don’t use it to refer to something that’s merely large. The word means a great evil, wickedness, or atrocity, as in “the enormity of Nazism.”
- verbal: Not a synonym for spoken. It means having to do with words or language, whether spoken or written. When you refer to the spoken as opposed to the written word, use oral.
When meanings are blurred, as often occurs with the words cited above, we lose valuable distinctions. The English language is thereby cheapened, a process analogous to the devaluation of a nation’s currency.
Some people say, in effect: “Who cares? What do the persnickety rules matter as long as we communicate?”
The answer is that not observing rules and definitions often means that we don’t communicate, or not very well. It’s important to express thoughts and ideas with precision. When a sentence is sloppy, it can cause ambiguity, confusion, and misunderstandings. Badly written prose can also appear awkward, clunky, or illiterate. Craft, style, eloquence, and erudition still count.
In general, I advise observing traditional rules, which constitute what’s called “Standard English,” unless a compelling reason exists to disregard them. Here’s why.
Customs and conventions aren’t irrelevant, nor are they “collectivist” injunctions that stifle individualism and creativity. They’re part of civilized society, and we ignore them at our peril.
We’re judged by how we use language. In your career and social life, you’re constantly viewed as educated or uneducated, literate or illiterate, on the basis of how well you speak and write. Like it or not, such first impressions help determine your status, advancement, wealth, romantic success, and so on. What’s more, many of the important people who pass such judgments respect tradition and care about standards. So it’s wise to act on the side of caution.
Take the prohibition on splitting infinitives. For centuries, language purists insisted on this taboo. Then the permissivists scoffed, derided the rule as a “superstition,” and proclaimed that nothing is wrong with the practice.
My view: Let’s respect the rule — unless the result sounds awkward or unnatural. I wonder if anything would have been lost if the Star Trek mission had been “to go boldly where no man has gone before.”
The sometimes puzzling and arbitrary rules of English inspired me to create what I archly call “The Necktie Principle.” No rational reasons exist to wear these sartorial embellishments, and one could offer several compelling arguments against them. But a male in the corporate world who abandons this accessory will likely come to regret that decision.
So it is with language. Even the permissivists don’t spell physician with an F, or knowledge without the K, although those revisions would, after all, be more “logical.” As for those who proclaim, “It’s in the dictionary,” don’t forget that dictionaries include the word ain’t, which will never be accepted in cultured circles no matter how many people use it.
As you might guess, I incline toward the prescriptivist camp. But language changes, and I’m willing to concede that the rules may be modified, revised, or bent when a good reason to do so exists.
If following a rule creates an awkward or stilted result, you might need to break it. But first, try rephrasing the sentence, a trick that often sidesteps the problem.
As for words with evolving meanings, consider mutual. Traditionally, it refers to a direct interaction between two or more persons or things, not between, for example, two people and their relationship to a third person. By this definition, Dickens erred when he titled his novel Our Mutual Friend. But “shared friend” and other alternative locutions are clumsy and tortuous. Thus, I’m willing to sanction “mutual friend” and “mutual acquaintance” because in this case there’s a reason to violate the rule.
As with many things in life, balance and common sense should prevail. And, of course, there are levels of discourse: A formal piece of writing, such as an academic paper or job application, requires a different style than a casual conversation or a note to the dry cleaner.
So what practical action can you take to improve your writing and communication skills? A solution is at hand.
In addition to a dictionary, every writer should own a good usage guide. By their nature, usage guides are prescriptivist. Many choices exist, of varying quality and reliability, and no single volume covers everything.
Here are four favorites that have served me well. Keep one or more of these recommended volumes on your desk, and you’ll deploy the written and spoken word with greater clarity, power, and effectiveness.
The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White. This is the classic — a slender volume packed with advice on how to write well, along with clear explanations of frequently disputed words and expressions. The current Fourth Edition is a revision that followed the deaths of the authors, and some sticklers object to the changes. If you’re a purist, you may want to track down an earlier edition.
The Careful Writer by Theodore M. Bernstein. This is a much larger book, so it covers many issues not found in Strunk and White. The author explains each point clearly and elegantly, with common sense and vivid examples. But the book was published almost five decades ago, and in a few instances the advice is dated or excessively rigid.
The Accidents of Style by Charles Harrington Elster. This quirky, entertaining usage guide was published in 2010, so it addresses many current language matters. In 350 wry and well-reasoned entries, the author resolves a host of thorny problems.
Garner’s Modern American Usage by Bryan A. Garner. If you’re a serious writer, this comprehensive volume — almost 900 pages — should be on your shelf. I’ve rarely had a question that Garner doesn’t cover, and the guidance he offers is almost always sound.
Finally, here are a few tips for perfecting your writing. Good writers edit their work through multiple drafts. Revise them on printouts as well as on your computer screen. Ask one or more trusted reviewers to vet your drafts. Read them aloud. This procedure will help ensure that your communications achieve their objectives … and make you look good as well.
Don Hauptman is a New York City-based advertising copywriter and humorist, and a longtime Objectivist. He writes a weekly online column on language. He is also author of The Versatile Freelancer, an e-book that shows creative people how to diversify into public speaking, consulting, training, and other profitable activities.