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.