National Grammar Day: Readability is My God
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.)
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.
Do you adore clean, correct sentences? Do ungrammatical advertisements make you cringe? We understand completely, and this is why the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar and MSN Encarta have designated March 4, 2008 as National Grammar Day.
Which is to say: count me among those who worry that this holiday will just empower would-be pedants.
I mean, obviously it will — "Do ungrammatical advertisements make you cringe?" is a clear appeal to the Princess and the Pea school of prescriptivism — but after today, will we have a better-informed public, or just more people acting like assholes because they know not to use the word irregardless?
MRP is proud to be a National Grammar Day participating blog. As such, I intend to embrace the spirit of the day, which to me is to celebrate the joy and complexity of language, and our shared interest in it.
I'm too much of a language geek not to appreciate National Grammar Day, whatever my complaints about its specific focus. And I'd rather represent mystery shop editors and militant reactive grammarians and whatever else I am than pout on the sidelines.
So I'll be "liveblogging" throughout the day today (if I could make those scarequotes scarier, I would) until work picks up and/or I run out of stuff to post.