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National Grammar Day:
Readability is My God

Tuesday, March 4, 2008   10:28 AM

Outside the realm of comic books, the best arguments for prescriptivism are invariably pragmatic.

Maybe I'm just being naive, but it seems like most grammatical prescriptions, even the crazy ones, came about because someone thought the text would be more readable that way. For example, even though the "avoid the passive voice" rule is much too blunt, it's true that "the active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive."

The novelty of the UChicago academic writing program was its extremely pragmatic approach: the intro course focused on things like subject continuity and sentence order. When pressed, one instructor told me that there was actually research behind all these new guidelines, proof they would make our writing more readable. It was hard to find fault with this purportedly scientific prescriptivism.

Editors have to consider other factors — correctness, conformity, veracity, elegance — but our fundamental concern is readability. We're there to make sure the text communicates its ideas effectively. That post about a National Clarity Day has it exactly right.

It's a shame that grammatical prescriptions don't always have much to do with readability. Dangling modifiers could trip up the reader, I can see that, but has ignorance of the which vs. that distinction ever done any harm?

(See also: Dryden's proscription of sentence-final prepositions, which is prettymuch completely ignored these days.)

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Pleased to make your acquaintance, I'm Mr. Unreadable.

I think it might be because I switched schools every year and missed ever doing the 5th/6th grade sentence diagramming phase of English education.

Now, that is also liberating, but the truth is you have to hear me to understand me, because it is basically all singing (e.g. tangents get their own pitch).

Would you look at my blog to see if you could make any suggestion for my improvement?

Hmm, I think if the writer is ignorant of the that/which distinction and the reader is not, then the writer's use of that and which might cause the reader to pause for a moment and lose the flow. In that sense it might affect readability.

The same would go for things like split infinitives – I have no problem with them, but I still try to avoid them where possible in the magazine I work for because some of our readership would take issue with them. The readers that don't have an issue with them presumably wouldn't mind either way.

So I am a pragmatic prescriptivist... I imagine most copy editors would fall into this category too.

Oh and Mr Unreadable - I had a quick look at your blog (the old movies one) and thought your writing was fine. I know professional writers whose writing is less clear.

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