Ought versus is at heart of language wars

It’s a war that’s been waged for the past 350 years the battlefield: our English language. Over the centuries, opponents and their motivating passions have frequently changed. In recent times the struggle has been taken up by prescriptivists, a varied group of writers, editors, educators and pundits who prescribe how English should be used based on their rules of grammar and usage. Challenging them are descriptivists, led by linguists who scientifically study the language and describe, without making value judgments, how it is used. The war, at its most fundamental level, is a struggle of ought against is.

One of the first to fire a recorded broadside against alleged faulty English usage was esteemed poet and writer John Dryden. In a 1672 criticism of the works of earlier poets such as Shakespeare and Ben Johnson, Dryden was able to “find in every page either some solecism of speech, or some notorious flaw in sense.” He went on to point out several of these solecisms, including, “The preposition in the end of the sentence; a common fault with (Johnson).”

No matter that respected authors from Chaucer onwards had employed this idiomatic construction in their works. No matter that Dryden gave no reason for his reproach. When viewed through the prism of Latin, the language of learning and refinement, ending a sentence with a preposition apparently appeared coarse and in erroneous. This notion took hold when language commentators and grammarians following on from Dryden denounced its use and created a new grammatical “rule” to follow, one that continues to plague folks even now.

Inevitably, this affection took on the role of a shibboleth, a way for the educated class to mark themselves from the plebs; and it is still used as a grammatical gotcha today by their ever watchful descendants, who write letters badgering editors when they spot its use in print.

Sure, it can sometimes be inelegant to end a sentence this way; but often it is the sensible selection, even mandatory, as in, “Besides their use as museum pieces, what else are the FCCJ’s old PCs good for?” A preposition is a perfectly fine way to end a sentence or clause with, so rely on your native ear when making the kind of choice I’m speaking of.

Much the same criticism can be leveled against other contrived rules handed down to us by the 18th and 19th century Latin loving grammarians. One notable example is the potty proscription against splitting infinitives.

Unlike Latin, it has always been natural for English to separate the to from the plain verb with an adverb. A fine contemporary example is the intro to the Star Trek TV series: “To boldly go where no man has gone before.” By comparison, “To go boldly” lacks the brio and rhythm of the original. Linguist and author extraordinaire David Crystal in The Fight for English explains why the split infinitive complements the beat of English:

It is a construction which has been in the language for centuries. It is popular because it is rhythmically more natural to say. The basic rhythm of English is a “tum-te-tum” rhythm what in the main tradition of English poetry is called an iambic pentameter, with strong (stressed) and weak (unstressed) syllables alternating. The curfew tolls the knell of parting day …

“To boldly go” is the resonant, impactful choice, so trust your native ear for English, not the toneeaf flappers covering fossilized minds.

The American bible for latter day prescriptivists is the oft cited The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White a university professor and a writer born in 1869 and 1899, respectively. It has sold over 10 million copies and celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2009. Such celebrations prompted Professor Geoffrey Pullum, linguist and co-author of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, to pen “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice.” In criticizing Elements he says, “Its advice ranges from limp platitudes to inconsistent nonsense. Its enormous influence has not improved American students’ grasp of English grammar; it has significantly degraded it.”

In particular, Pullen discredits the authors’ denigration of the passive construction, as they are “so grammatically clueless that they don’t know what is a passive construction and what isn’t. Of the four pairs of examples offered to show readers what to avoid and to correct it, a staggering three out of the four are mistaken diagnoses.”

One such example: “There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground.” As Pullum notes, this has no sign of the passive in it. A passive construction commonly employs the object of an active sentence as its grammatical subject, typically followed by a “be” verb and a past participle. So we have the active “People on the left hate Rush Limbaugh” construction becoming “Rush Limbaugh is hated by people on the left” in the passive.

Elements’ harmful influence doesn’t end at the walls of ivory towers; mistaught students graduate and enter the wider world citing and praising this fraudulent little tome. So we get novelists as prolific as Stephen King, in his instructutional On Writing, making this blanket statement in italics: “You should avoid the passive tense. I’m not the only one who says so; you can find the same advice in The Elements of Style.” This is an amusing example of prescriptivists’ over generalized proscriptions, for like the two misguided authors of Elements, King ignores his own silly advice and begins On Writing with, “I was stunned by Mary Karr’s memoir, The Liar’s Club.”

Rather than shun the passive, consider it a useful construction that can improve the effectiveness of your writing in several ways, one example being, “This passionate defense of the passive is written by John Boyd,” when I want to gobsmack you with my name. Hence all good writers, including King and White, use it some of the time.

N ow, Elements is messing up folks on the other side of the Atlantic. In Britain, Neville Gwynne, author of the best selling Gwynne’s Grammar, has incorporated it into his primer, modestly subtitled The Ultimate Introduction to Grammar and the Writing of Good English. Alas, it reached No. 1 on the Times best seller list last summer.

Lamentably, Gwynne and similar self appointed pundits are too often feted and fawned over in the media. The publicity has helped them create a thriving publishing industry that exploits the linguistically insecure, when in reality their writings belong in the fiction section. Conferring esteem on them has lent unwarranted authority to their pedantic carpings and cavilings, such as when condemning “hopefully” and “data is” in, “Hopefully, RIKEN’s data is correct this time.” So it is hardly surprising that a myth informed public has doubts about the “proper” use of English.

Prescriptivists typically respond to these criticisms by claiming descriptivists accept whatever has been written as correct, and therefore don’t ascribe to any rules or standards: the “anything goes” charge. Gosh! So that’s why this error strewn, unreadable denouncement of petty prescriptivism lacks clarity, logic and accuracy! Actually, unlike the pundits, linguists hold to standards that are intellectually honest, for they acknowledge that any standard is but a snapshot, a contemporaneous description of a language variety in a particular point in time. This is why my granddaughter won’t hold to the same standard of English I hold to because the language is always in flux.

To judge the descriptive method for yourself, purchase a copy of Merriam Web ster’s Dictionary of English Usage. In examining language disputes, it uses an evidence based approach employing the great historical dictionaries, works of distinguished authors, writers and speakers, and many notable usage commentaries from different periods. The historical background of a dispute is presented along with examples old and new of its usage to enable the reader to reach a considered conclusion.

In dealing with data/datum, for instance, MWDEU notes it wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that data meaning facts and figures became established and was used both as a plural noun (like earnings) taking a plural verb, and as a mass noun (like information) taking a singular verb. Its earliest recorded use as a mass noun with a singular verb was in 1902, and this form was common enough to incur the full weight of prescriptivist opprobrium in the 1920s.

The dictionary goes on to give examples of how the mass noun/singular verb construction has been only partly “corrected” by automaton editors, resulting in the new plural verb disagreeing with the original modifier:

…much of the data are still tentative– James Q. Wilson, N.Y.Times, 6 Oct. 1974 (the singular modifier much with plural verb shows that some copy editor routinely corrected the verb without thinking)

The modifier has been overlooked precisely because it is standard, and saying “many of the data” would be jarring to the ear. MWDEU provides two similar miscorrected examples to show this is no isolated occurrence. Even general publications, then, rather than employ the same standard of English used by their readers and writers, engage in knee jerk editing, only to make an embarrassing mess of what were perfectly fine constructions to begin with. Instead of taking a stand on what is long established mainstream usage outside the science community and certain specialist journals, publishers acquiesce perhaps out of fear of being labeled unprofessional to an insensible few who noisily pronounce on how English ought to be used; in doing so, they keep alive one more zombie rule that gnaws away at their readers’ confidence in speaking and writing.

Such is the influence of an intolerant, pedantic minority; a minority that loves its own variety of the language, but can abide no other.

John Boyd strings for IEEE Spectrum magazine and covers sci-tech-biz news and events for a variety of publications.