John McIntyre of the Baltimore Sun and the blog You Don’t Say recently made this comment on someone else’s Facebook page. It’s far too good not to disseminate more widely.
Descriptivists give empirical information about how people actually speak and write the language, which is what has always dictated grammar and usage. Informed prescriptivists pay attention to empirical information, and when, like me, they are editors, they make judgments based on that empirical information rather than on superstitions, shibboleths, and bogus rules, adjusting the register of usage to subject, occasion, publication, and audience. Uninformed prescriptivists waste people’s time, including their own.
Well-informed comment about language in the popular press is rare, but there are exceptions. In the US, ‘veteran drudge John E McIntyre writes about language, usage, and journalism & arbitrarily chosen subjects’ in the ‘Baltimore Sun’. He does so with good humour and the benefit of long experience in his trade. His column is ‘You Don’t Say’, and he has a Facebook page.
His post ‘The Law of Conservation of Peevery’ on 8 August considers the ‘tradition of lamentation that has wagged its head and clucked its tongue over the precipitous decline of the language virtually since the Norman victory at Hastings’. The peeverein should read it, but of course they won’t. I recommend it in its entirety (it isn’t long), but here are his trenchant comments on some of the tired old grumbles.
Every writer I have ever encountered has at one time or another written ‘it’s’ for ‘its’. So have I. The wrong neuron fires across a synapse; it’s a spelling error, for Fowler’s sake, not a crime against the Holy Ghost.
Complaining about slang is like complaining that the tides keep the ocean from being level.
Linguists describe languages as they exist. It’s pointless to whinge that they do not describe language as you imagine it to be.
Most people write inexpertly. Most people who write always have. Writing is not easy to master. If you have developed a facility for it, good for you. That does not, however, make you morally superior to those who have not, any more than mastery of any other skill, such as pie-making or plumbing, confers moral elevation. Curb your smugness.