Rules and Conventions

One of the things I like about math is its predictability. The rules of engagement are plainly laid out, and you just follow the logic to its conclusion. Those rules don't change from day to day, or year to year; I can be reasonably sure that what I learned in high school or college is still true today. Math is a very rational thing, and sometimes rationality is comforting. On the other hand, too much comfort can be a bad thing, and for me the variability of English is the perfect antidote. Not that the underlying logic is variable; you can't substitute words and punctuation at random without also altering meaning, and obviously syntax is no mere contrivance. But conventions that existed years ago aren’t necessarily in effect today, and even among those that are, change is inevitable. Unlike math, it's change in popular usage that results in change to the language.

So who keeps track of these changes, and who decides what's right? Isn't there some kind of central authority, a Keeper of the Rules? I'm not sure, but I don't think so. For example, after poking around at AskOxford for a while I began to realize that what they're really doing is tracking—and illuminating—changes in convention. They aren't just doling out rules, although sometimes it does come down to that; there are a lot of situations that simply don't require anything more. But the larger picture involves the history of the language—not just a word's origin, but how and why it was used in a particular way—and that's where things get interesting.

As far as I can tell right now, the realm of English is essentially divided into two camps. One is conservative, believing destruction of the language is guaranteed by not following established rules. The other is more liberal, believing natural selection within the evolutionary process of the language is inevitable, and ultimately beneficial. Of course, you would expect a moderate faction somewhere between these two polarities, and I'm sure they exist as well. But realistically, if you're out there searching for the definitive answer to your grammar question, you're likely to run into differing viewpoints. How can this be?

One answer is that there's a difference between mechanics and style. Some things you just can't change without risking the label of ignorance; you can't misuse words or punctuation and call it a matter of style. On the other hand, if you decide to ignore the rule about hanging an extra s on the ends of words that already end in s to indicate possession—e.g. Dr. James’ house, instead of Dr. James's house—you can chalk it up to style and walk away. The final authority in such matters is always your teacher, professor, editor, or boss, but if you're on your own, it's entirely up to you. At least that's what the language-liberals would say. The hardcore conservatives may say you're violating the rules and contributing to the destruction of the language in the process. But in matters such as these, I think you're just going to have to judge for yourself what's beneficial, and what isn't. Personally, I hate that extra s hanging on the ends of words like James; I think it's ugly, and useless. If there were some logical benefit to James's instead of James' when you're indicating possession I'd be all for it, but I just don't see it.

The subject of rules versus conventions is particularly interesting to me, but I arrived at it more or less by accident. The other day I had intended to post something about using ellipses, but decided to first research current wisdom on the subject. I remembered having seen the ellipsis hemmed in with brackets at some point, but also noticed more recent cases where it was rendered without, so I started poking around. I found reliable evidence of a change in convention regarding those brackets—it isn't necessary to surround an ellipsis with them anymore—and in the process a good discussion about putting some space between the series of dots referred to as an ellipsis. I've normally rendered the thing like this . . . a series of three periods with a space on each end, and also with a space between each dot. But in more formal publication the spaces between the dots go away, which is why I decided to research the subject in the first place. Although I found several sites that demonstrated the proper use of ellipses, one in particular went beyond demonstration and into the realm of insight.

Paul Brians is Professor of English at Washington State University, and he also runs a site dedicated to effective writing. Although Paul points out that his list of common errors isn't exhaustive, it seems there's enough material to answer most questions on the subject. But what I really like about the site is the explanation that goes with so many of the entries. Where similar sites merely point out the correct way to execute a particular word, punctuation, or other rule of grammar, this one often explains why. Sometimes the only thing that really helps is understanding the historical basis for a word's use, or the difference between hard-and-fast rules of grammar versus those you can safely ignore. From poking around the site, I gather he has received his share of hate mail from those who consider him a linguistic anarchist, but I also noticed more than a few awards and citations.

Personally, I would be uncomfortable with some of the things he dismisses as matters of style. As I mentioned in a previous post, I really don't see the logic in words like forwards and towards, but maybe it's just me. From the non-errors section of his site:

Although some style books prefer "forward" and "toward" to "forwards" and "towards," none of these forms is really incorrect, though the forms without the final "S" are perhaps a smidgen more formal. The spelling "foreword" applies exclusively to the introductory matter in a book.

I'm not an English professor, so there's no way I'm going to argue the point. Maybe this is just another example of popular usage altering the language, and not necessarily for the better. I also made a comment about using who instead of that in another post, which Paul considers misguided as well:

In fact there are many instances in which the most conservative usage is to refer to a person using "that": "All the politicians that were at the party later denied even knowing the host" is actually somewhat more traditional than the more popular "politicians who." An aversion to "that" referring to human beings as somehow diminishing their humanity may be praiseworthily sensitive, but it cannot claim the authority of tradition. In some sentences, "that" is clearly preferable to "who": "She is the only person I know of that prefers whipped cream on her granola." In the following example, to exchange "that" for "who" would be absurd: "Who was it that said, 'A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle'?"*

*Commonly attributed to Gloria Steinem, but she attributes it to Irina Dunn.

Praiseworthily sensitive: that's me. Anyway, I found more stuff on his site with which I do agree than the other way around. And besides, I think I learned more from reading through his explanations than I have in some time. Very interesting indeed.

And what of the ellipsis? As it turns out, I can keep my beloved spaces. At least that's what Paul says:

When text is typeset, the spaces are often but not always omitted between the dots in an ellipsis. Since modern computer printer output looks much more like typeset writing than old-fashioned typewriting, you may be tempted to omit the spaces; but it is better to include them and let the publisher decide whether they should be eliminated.

Thanks, professor!

I also followed some of the links on Paul's site, and at a place called Dr. NAD's prig page ran across something I thought was appropriate, especially in the context of blogging.

Writing on the internet, free from editors and so forth, may madden prigs and even annoy casual readers. There are no enforced standards. But to do it well is a fresh challenge for serious authors. Web surfers seek quick info and direction. A new brand of concise, effective, but not sloppy, writing must evolve. Language will change, but its aficionados will respect a moderate pace, and change does not permit writing errors that frustrate thought.

Change does not permit writing errors that frustrate thought. Now there's an encouraging idea.


No comments:

Post a Comment