Order Versus Chaos (Not an Election Story)

“Tabula rasa” commented after my first post, “Would you comment on where you think the proper line is between strict prescriptivism and the ‘anything goes’ approach to language? I hate relativism and anarchy so I believe in rules, but I recognize that a language is organic and can’t be preserved in amber. What’s the proper balance?”

This is a perfectly reasonable question, but there is something about “line” questions. I can never seem to come up with a straight answer for them.

I am, by profession, a prescriptivist. I work for publications that hire me to root out certain kinds of language and enforce a house style. There is a general tone and rhetorical range to the prose I work on, and I correct for most anything that seems to fall outside of that range. But even if I didn’t, often enough my authors would.

I remember once thinking over the question of using like to introduce examples. The original manuscript had said there are no modern versions of contemplative, inward-looking philosophers like Pascal, Montaigne, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche. Some editors would insist on changing this to “such as.” I was pretty sure I had seen like used this way in respectable sources, but I know it to be an irritation to some. Anyway, I put off changing like to such as. But, in the meantime, the writer noticed and changed it himself.

Such minute distinctions take up a large part of the work of copyediting. Now, what if it were not done? Would you have bad, anarchic writing? No, you would have blogs.

Blogs offer so many counterexamples to what we achieve by copyediting for a consistent formal style, and blogs’ overall effectiveness pose some unpleasant challenges to the value of copyediting. For instance, they put to rest the notion that the border between order and chaos completely dissolves in the absence of linguistic guardians such as myself. And while they show us a great variety of overall quality, they also sometimes deliver a much-appreciated injection of idiosyncracy in individual expression.

In general, I think the line between anarchy and order is overstated. And not just by the law-and-order folks. The self-proclaimed anarchists also go too far. Self-conscious writers and speakers all tend in the direction of trying to refine their own language. In 1950, the linguist Robert A. Hall Jr. wrote a popular book called Leave Your Language Alone! He said, “There is no such thing as good and bad (or correct and incorrect, grammatical and ungrammatical, right and wrong) in language.”

But that’s not true either. There may be no absolute standard of correctness available to human minds, but there are degrees of correctness, degrees of appropriateness, and degrees of eloquence. One notion that struck me while researching this subject arose from a comparison of my thoughts on strict constructionism to my thoughts on linguistic correctness.

As a layman observer, I am sympathetic to the view that Supreme Court rulings should square with the language of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. It may be difficult to always discern the Founders’ intentions. Semantic change may force contemporaries into uncomfortable roles as linguistic detectives, but, in theory, it is still possible to understand these old documents and reconcile our current laws to what they say.

But when it comes to language, there is no Constitution, no handy document just waiting to be looked up and read again more closely this time. There is only the record of usage, and since most of it is in print, it is highly selective.

In twentieth-century American English we saw  a great efflorescence of written and colloquial expression, in modernist literature, in radio talk, in movie dialogue, and in all forms of journalism from Variety to Army Times, and, starting in the late ‘40s, on television. With the Great Depression, World War Two, and the GI Bill, the great word hoard grew, and the number of educated speakers grew. The language veered in several new directions all at once, testing the boundaries of those tidy categories we had invented to divide the good from the bad and the right from the wrong.

My book, The Story of Ain’t, is about a weird and funny and one-of-a-kind controversy amidst all this churning of the language. It’s about the linguists who were trying to see the language anew and describe it as honestly as possible. But it’s also about their failure to help laypersons better understand the complications hidden behind our dearest beliefs.

I am sympathetic to the descriptivists, but I am not one of their number. I am not a linguist. My interest in language is personal and professional. If I have a bias, it is that I want language to be beautiful and resonant and orderly but also sometimes chaotic, that is when my own impulses are chaotic—chaotic and rebellious like an animal escaping the zoo and charging down the city streets, threatening the peace and safety of everyone around. Okay, maybe that‘s a little overstated, but you get the point, which is that when I’m in the mood to be disorderly, tie askew and slurring, or surly and mean, or silly, or paranoid, or whatever, I don’t want to be held up by some know-it-all who still remembers what his sixth-grade teacher said about the naughtiness of slang or the wrongness of split infinitives or the correct form for the past participle of lie. Getting my point across is hard enough.

  1. with me where I am

    Thank you, Mr. Skinner, for opening up your word-hoard.

  2. At The Rubicon

    Another viewpoint:  Gaelic.  I’m trying to learn it and am fortunate to have as my tutor a native speaker who grew up on Skye.  For most of Gaelic’s history it was not a written language. As a result, there is a lot of ‘anarchy’ there.  In my opinion that makes it more interesting. The folks with the PhDs in language studies are all busy trying to regularize it, which will make it easier to learn but too sterile, in my opinion. I was told the story by my tutor of one of her students who was fluent in ‘academic’ Gaelic to travelled to a small highland town and could not understand a word that was spoken.

    So I vote for a little more anarchy in language.

  3. Sandy

    It seems to me that the ability to be “disorderly” and “chaotic” with language depends entirely on the maintenance of the fundamental order of the language.  That the order may change over time does not affect this principle, I think.    

  4. KC Mulville

    Grammar and syntax are the “stage directions” of language, without which the words would be confusing and disjointed. The rules of language are chiefly about the stage directions.

    However, the internet and blogosphere are rapidly showing that those stage directions don’t need to be absolute or set in stone – and they can change in different contexts. I wouldn’t want to read a philosophy treatise that starts with “U R reading phil :)”

    The stage directions are just devices. They do a job. They allow a reader to move as quickly and securely through the words to grasp the ideas that the writer intended. The devices and stage directions are purely functional; if other devices can do the job better, I have no objection to using them.

  5. Sandy
    KC Mulville: Grammar and syntax are the “stage directions” of language, without which the words would be confusing and disjointed. The rules of language are chiefly about the stage directions.

    However, the internet and blogosphere are rapidly showing that those stage directions don’t need to be absolute or set in stone – and they can change in different contexts. I wouldn’t want to read a philosophy treatise that starts with “U R reading phil :)”

    The stage directions are just devices. They do a job. They allow a reader to move as quickly and securely through the words to grasp the ideas that the writer intended. The devices and stage directions are purely functional; if other devices can do the job better, I have no objection to using them. · 2 minutes ago

    Agree, but as in many other areas of life, when we give up a long tradition, we usually don’t know what we’ve lost until it’s long gone.  As a conservative through and through, I am for measured change.

  6. Aaron Miller

    Mark Twain’s style wasn’t proper, but he did have a style and it was brilliant. Shakespeare invented words, but was understood. Language should be clear and deliberate. That accomplished, form is your playground.A good rhetorician is adaptable. Sticking to one form in all circumstances is like wearing a tie to go swimming. A formal standard is useful and respectable, but life is not one long ceremony.

  7. Misthiocracy
    David Skinner, Guest Contributor:

    I am, by profession, a prescriptivist. I work for publications that hire me to root out certain kinds of language and enforce a house style. There is a general tone and rhetorical range to the prose I work on, and I correct for most anything that seems to fall outside of that range. 

    I think that sorta goes a long way towards answering the question.  Each publication will have its own house style.

    To attempt to enforce a single “house style” on every human who writes in English would be an impossible task, particularly given the advent of the Internet, Twitter, Facebook, etc.

    I am quite fond of using Internet vernacular in my on-line writings.  I’m a huge fan of words like “gonna”, “woulda”, “skillz”, “lotsa”, “waitaminute”, “lol”, “methinks”, etc, especially on a site like Ricochet where the software imposes a word limit.

    At the same time, I wouldn’t dream of using that kind of language in my professional writing. When writing professionally I try to stick to the Canadian Press Style Book.

  8. Misthiocracy
    Aaron Miller: Mark Twain’s style wasn’t proper, but he did have a style and it was brilliant. Shakespeare invented words, but was understood. Language should be clear and deliberate. That accomplished, form is your playground.A good rhetorician is adaptable. Sticking to one form in all circumstances is like wearing a tie to go swimming. A formal standard is useful and respectable, but life is not one long ceremony.

    Ah, but when Mark Twain worked as a journalist under the employ of a newspaper, did he not use “proper” style as defined by the newspaper?

    Clearly, one has more freedom to “play” with the language when one is creating works of art. The rules of artistic writing are different from the rules of journalistic or academic writing.

    However, there can be no doubt that Twain was schooled in the rules of “proper” English, especially during his apprenticeship as a printer and typesetter.  

    One should always know the rules before one starts to bend them.  One could argue that’s the problem with Internet English today.  The kids are no longer taught the “proper” forms first.

  9. Misthiocracy

    Double Post.

  10. KC Mulville
    Sandy Agree, but as in many other areas of life, when we give up a long tradition, we usually don’t know what we’ve lost until it’s long gone.  As a conservative through and through, I am for measured change.

    And in turn, I agree with you … but I’m less sure that these changes can be managed deliberately.

    Sometimes you just have to surf along and maintain the illusion of control.

  11. Misthiocracy
    Richard Finlay

    At The Rubicon:  … fluent in ‘academic’ Gaelic to travelled to a small highland town and could not understand a word that was spoken….

    My question is: Can the inhabitants of small highland towns a few hundred miles apart understand each other?  The most valuable function of language ”prescription,” I believe, is to maintain sufficient overlap among dialects so that they can mutually (and easily) communicate.

    Ah, but the key here is that the “authors” of “academic” Gaelic are outsiders who do not actually speak the language on a regular basis.  They are prescribing rules that nobody actually follows in the real world.

    By contrast, those two villages hundreds of miles apart speak dialects that are actually spoken in practice, and which evolved organically from a common ancestor. As such, they are better equipped to understand each other than someone who has learned an “academic” dialect which has been formalized artificially by academics who do not speak the language in the real world.

    The villager may be able to understand the academic, but the academic has a much harder time understanding the villager.

  12. Misthiocracy

    “People do not deserve to have good writing, they are so pleased with bad.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

  13. James Gawron

    David,

    I agree with your point of view with two additional observations.

    First,  the Websters 3rd mentality that you wrote of is a little more threatening to me than you make out.  I think reducing everything to standard and non-standard usage is indicative of a social scientific agnostic point of view.  The need to be nonjudgemental devolves into a complete lack of judgement all too quickly.

    Second, I admit that blogging produces some strange writing in me.  I have been accused and convicted of using CAPITALIZATION wantonly.   I think it is due to the friendly argument attitude of Richochet.  With friends you let your hair down a little and express more emotion when you are speaking.  The instant conversation aspect of the blog magnifies this.  However, I am very happy with the Ricochet code of conduct and the Blue Yeti.  It makes Ricochet two cuts above the rest.

    One last thing.  Long ago when I was in school the last thing I was interested in was an editor.  Now older and wiser, I appreciate the art.

    Regards,

    Jim

  14. Richard Finlay
    At The Rubicon:  … fluent in ‘academic’ Gaelic to travelled to a small highland town and could not understand a word that was spoken….

    I have often heard that this is true from people who have learned (even a modern) language academically when confronted with native speakers.  My question is: Can the inhabitants of small highland towns a few hundred miles apart understand each other?  The most valuable function of language ”prescription,” I believe, is to maintain sufficient overlap among dialects so that they can mutually (and easily) communicate.

  15. Umbra Fractus

    I’m an amateur linguist, and also an anti-prescriptivist. It started when I learned that a lot of the prescriptive rules copy editors take for granted (split infinitives, sentence final prepositions, etc.) are actually quite natural in Germanic languages (of which English is one) and were imposed artificially out of some misguided notion that Latin, which doesn’t allow such things, is inherently superior.

    My standard is simple: If a native speaker can understand you without having to stop and think about it, your grammar is fine. I guess you could narrow that down to the standard dialect, but even then the standard dialect changes over time, and the rules should change to reflect that.

    Edit: Ending a sentence with a comma is wrong no matter who you ask, however.

  16. Misthiocracy
    Umbra Fractus: I’m an amateur linguist, and also an anti-prescriptivist. It started when I learned that a lot of the prescriptive rules copy editors take for granted (split infinitives, sentence final prepositions, etc.) are actually quite natural in Germanic languages (of which English is one) and were imposed artificially out of some misguided notion that Latin, which doesn’t allow such things, is inherently superior.

    This reminds me of a Cracked.com article:

    7 Commonly Corrected Grammar Errors (That Aren’t Mistakes)