The Grammar Wars

I appreciate the value of good writing. As an editor, I’ve seen the good, the bad and the just plain ugly. I’ve also stretched the rules of grammar for a good headline within an ad campaign.  Much of the beauty of the English language lies in its ability to change. It’s remarkably flexible and has adapted over time to include new words and interesting phrases. But I find it’s much easier to bend the rules once you actually know them. Take cooking for example. Once you know what flavors work well together, the best use of heat and the difference between a pinch and a dash, then you can begin to experiment.

Finding this fine line between bending and breaking the rules is the subject of a new book, “The Lexicographer’s Dilemma,” by Rutgers English professor Jack Lynch. Salon contributor Laura Miller offers an interesting review of the book, pointing out the two schools of thought on proper English usage. The prescriptive belief is that language experts should dictate how to read and write, while the descriptive thought leans more toward giving guidance.

Apparently Lynch agrees more with the descriptive camp, but sees value in mastering the language because it gives one access to power. 

According to Miller, “To protest that the language police are only protecting the accuracy, precision and clarity of our tongue, Lynch lifts a skeptical eyebrow. Many of the most roundly deplored “debasements” of English are nevertheless perfectly comprehensible…The only truly unbreakable rules of grammar and usage are the ones that, when broken, result in a genuine failure to communicate. The rest is a form of covert class warfare, and today’s usage reproofs constitute a status-protecting thump on the head delivered by the upper middle class to uppity members of the lower middle. Thinking of the grammar wars in this light helps explain why they provoke such rage. Much as some people might detest seeing the noun “impact” used as a verb, if a lot of people say it and almost everybody understands it when it’s said, then a coup has been effected. The “verbing” of nouns (or the creation of “nerbs”) has been a flashpoint for the past four or five decades with the growth of business management lingo. Complaints about this point to a particularly American social fissure: between the cultured sensibility of the liberally educated and the can-do utilitarianism of striving MBAs.”

So how much guidance do we need? Before beginning any writing project, it’s important to think about the audience that you want to reach with your message. Obviously, the tone and word selection will vary if you’re writing for 18 to 24-year old men entering college versus Baby Boomers buying a second home. And while the language is flexible, some rules should never be broken. Laughing slyly, the story ended while she typed. Confused yet?

1 Comment on “The Grammar Wars

  1. Hmm. Does this mean I can’t say the buzz words at the Capitol, like “synergize,” “incent,” “incentivize,” and “empowermentation” are just plain wrong?

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