Why are language rules so baffling?

Whatever your goals, it's essential to possess the skills to express your ideas effectively and persuasively. When you master the tools of communication, you have an edge in work and in life.

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.

7 comments from readers  

To post comments, please log in first. The Atlasphere is a social networking site for admirers of Ayn Rand's novels, most notably The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. In addition to our online magazine, we offer a member directory and a dating service. If you share our enjoyment of Ayn Rand's novels, please sign up or log in to post comments.
Yes, yes, yes! I've been railing against 'to boldly go...' for years, saying that it sounds awkward and weak, and have yet to meet anyone who even knows what I'm talking about. Thank you for using that example.
Many who might read this article would be inclined to say, "I could care less about the rules!"

When, what they actually meant to say was, "I couldn't care less!" But their very statement proves that they should have.
The complexity of the problem of language is ageless. Language is essential to thinking and communication, but also used to short-circuit thinking by sophists. Those who choose to let definitions change based on common misuse would subvert the thinking process by making words (concepts) arbitrary.

For example, the word "feel" has been undergoing a changing definition by usage. It is now commonly used to replace "think". In light of its old meaning one could easily come to believe that feeling and thinking are the same. But as we know "feelings are not knowledge", i.e., feeling something does not make it so, i.e., is not proof of its validity. But the use of emotion to subvert reason is old and powerful. It is the cognitive explanation for acceptance of superstition. Until superstition is reduced to a minority instead of a majority, the future of humanity is in jeopardy.
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Wonderful! A subject that should be treated with more gravity than it is afforded in most public schools.

A person who thinks clearly will not have a problem expressing himself clearly. However we the reading public have come to tolerate a lot of "individuals expressing themselves in unconventional ways" because we have come to subscribe to the idea that "everything is relative, nothing is black and white anymore" or "what's true for you may not be true for me" or even "people who are hard to understand must be more profound than I am."

We have also allowed our children to become our language teachers ("How R U?" "OMG!" "Phat!!!") and we fail to correct them when they write site for sight or mall for maul.

Knowing the difference between good English and bad has paid me big dividends in one particular area: you can almost always find spelling, grammar or punctuation errors in scam emails, and it is probably the single best "tell" that a supposed corporate communication is bogus.
Language rules are so baffling because we generally learn them out of synch with learning to think or speak. When formal education falters, most people tend to improvise across cultures and languages often with intonations and body language. When double talk, half truths and outright lies are used by sophists, some rare people will catch on while most others get fooled.

Correct grammar and word definitions are separate parts of language and yet are directly related. When either get confused as to their proper use or meaning, communication breaks down or worse, creates even more confusion. The train wrecks in Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged serve as metaphors to point out such conceptual disasters.

The oral and the written traditions also share and compete. The oral often dictates grammar and word improvisation in order to be understood when it's sometimes lacking suitable formal language. Intonation and body language also augment oral communications and is often omitted or overlooked during written transcription. The gap between the oral and written has swallowed many lost moments so careful consideration should be used when crossing in either direction.

Distortion of language takes many forms for different reasons, mostly for the lack of understanding, time and/or space. Words can get stretched or abbreviated depending on their applications. Multiple words for the same entity or multiple meanings for a single word can create more confusion. Sometimes this confusion may even be used intentionally as a defense mechanism or for implied meaning such as reading between the lines. Poetic metaphor as a form of shorthand can succeed or fail depending on broader understanding. Different cultures may have separate interpretations of the same word due to various contextual factors.

Targeting words to a specific audience can be effective but will also limit your scope. Determining the most fundamental concepts and precise words are the key to being understood clearly by the most people. Ultimately, our commitment to be honest about our values and understood concisely is what inspires us to translate correctly to the written page. The same goes for applying the written word back into practice.
Overall an enjoyable article, but I do have some points of contention.

Language is something that has evolved organically for thousands of years before any rules were formalized in a dictionary. This kind of publication, in a way, takes a snapshot of what was considered correct at the time based on many arbitrary considerations that will continue to change. That's not to say anything goes, but that language has been evolving and its usage can't be strictly correct or incorrect in a mathematical sense (unless of course, one is using language in a logical proof or computer program, but this is in regard to common usage).

Also, speaking of meanings changing over time, there is a good reason people don't throw around the word "oral" so freely these days.
If it's wrong to have democratic votes on language, how can it be right to obey tradition, the say-so of majorities long dead?

By the way, the cited definition of "enormity" came about by this kind of democratic vote.


"This distinction between 'enormity' and 'enormousness' has not always existed historically, but nowadays many observe it."

Not that either tradition or democratic vote is logical, as for the adjective "enormous," the vote went exactly the other way:


If there is a logical distinction, go for the logical thing. If there isn't, going by tradition makes less sense than flipping a coin.

If there is no logical solution, go by the "democratic vote," so that as many people as possible will understand you. After all, you want to communicate with the living, not with the dead.
To post comments, please log in first. The Atlasphere is a social networking site for admirers of Ayn Rand's novels, most notably The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. In addition to our online magazine, we offer a member directory and a dating service. If you share our enjoyment of Ayn Rand's novels, please sign up or log in to post comments.