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A rogue copy editor's manifesto
Wednesday, April 18, 2007   9:20 AM

As outlined in the Language Log post "Everything is correct" versus "Nothing is relevant", there is a third way between a complete descriptivist rejection of grammatical rules in the face of contrary usage and a slavish prescriptivist adherence to rules that often have no relation to how good, honest sentences are formed.

As I understand it, Reactive Grammar, a.k.a. WTF grammar, is about abiding by your own correctness conditions rather than usage guides. You can still make language mistakes, but if a sentence is clear and intelligible to both its speaker and its audience, then it doesn't matter if, say, it ends with a preposition. And why should it?

I'm currently employed by two different companies as a proofreader and quality assurance editor respectively, and in the past I spent a year as copy chief of our school newspaper and three years tutoring students on how to write effective essays. I've found that even if you're in a position where you have to enforce arbitrary rules like the AP styleguide's preference for adviser over advisor, there's no harm in knowing that language prescriptions like those in your usage guide are neither magic nor objectively "correct."

This knowledge can even help you to be less arrogant. There's no reason to look down on a writer for using which in a way which you wouldn't, especially when you find out that many other people have the same correctness conditions as that writer. You might recast a sentence with that sort of which in order to fit with internal style rules or promote clarity or satisfy the language cranks in your audience, but all that's about making writing better, not about right vs. wrong.

There's also no reason to — as I often did in the past — stop a conversation to enforce a language "rule" when what the speaker said was completely intelligible to you. The latent classism in pointing out that "ain't isn't a word," or the fact that, yes it is, aren't the point. The point is that you are the people, the language is working for you, and if you didn't have some WTF reaction to how the speaker is talking, then there's no reason to bring Strunk and White into this. As they say, or should.

Lest we forget: Language belongs to the people.

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Thoroughly enjoyed this one. Especially the last paragraph and sentiment.

Frankly I was a bit shocked when I saw you'd made a pic that expressed something so close to my core beliefs.

Sadly, or rather, not, that wasn't me who made that image. That was my good friend at Though we work together at: I enjoy your work, keep it up!

I love you, I love you, I love you!

I, too, find myself between the prescriptivists and descriptivists. I got my M.A. in Linguistics some thirty years ago -- and now I write historical novels, which makes me ever mindful of the copy editor.

Kudos on a lovely site.

I agree, but I think this "complete descriptivist rejection of grammatical rules in the face of contrary usage" you mention is a straw man. A real descriptive grammar is a description of usage, including what is used and not used in various social contexts. In other words, I think the descriptive approach is the third way.

I responded to alienvoord's last comment here, and he's responded to my response there as well.

Essentially, I'm fine with the definition many actual descriptivists would use for "descriptivism," but the perjorated, straw-man sense of that term is common enough these days that I'm willing to accept a third label instead.

Descriptivists — as imagined by the prescriptivists — may not even exist, but it's still useful (and quick) to be able to say "no, I'm not one of those people; I have some correctness standard."

Glad I found your site! I posted about it here.

Yes, thanks. I was on lunchbreak when you posted, so I noticed prettymuch immediately.

Perhaps you've stumbled across them already, but if you like my site you might also be interested in the blogs Motivated Grammar and Arrant Pedantry.

Your Manifesto is capital work, and I've added it to my collection of links. Thanks for pointing out the third way so clearly.

"I am theory"
Siegbert Tarrasch when told his unorthodox chess plan went against theory.

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