Jane MacDonald

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Purists and Radicals

                                                                                              2002 Jane MacDonald


Being a veteran of vast numbers of battles over proper grammar and usage--you can start one in seconds on alt.English.usage, and I quite enjoy them--I feel the urge now and then to point out that people who care about these things have more than two positions to choose from.

"Purists" or "Mossbacks" usually adopt some defunct grammarian's book as their Bible and defend its rules against all comers. Probably the best to use for this is H.W. Fowler's Modern English Usage (Oxford: the 1954 ed. is a good one), but American purists sometimes choose Wilson Follett's Modern American Usage: A Guide (1966), which was revised by Erik Wensberg in 1988. Like Robert Burchfield, who did a major revision on Fowler a few years ago, Wensburg is held in contempt by true purists, who insist on sticking to the original.

Both those books, though now outdated, are wonderful reads, full of information any writer should savor. But only purists insist that their rules still hold. Incidentally, true purists scoff at Strunk & White, which is a mere book of rules, not an examination of the language.

"Radicals," often citing various linguists as their authorities, insist that there are no rules at all, and writers should do what they damned well please. Their mantra goes something like, "Languages change every day, and the grammarians are just fuddy-duddies." (That's a translation of the real epithets.)

When these sides clash, no solution is possible until everybody is dead.

When I was young and brash, I was a mossback of the first order. Now that I am older, and if not wiser at least less inclined to toss bricks around, I fit into a third class.

"Moderates" tend to say that, yes, language changes, but without rules, we would have nothing but chaos--nobody would understand anything if we were all radicals. On the other hand, there is no point in fighting changes that are now common not only in speech but in the works of our best writers. (Moderates are always saying "on the other hand," no matter what the cause they're debating.)

Thus moderates are inclined to accept, if not actually approve, such things as split infinitives, the use of "which" to introduce restrictive clauses, the use of pronouns in ways that prevent sex discrimination, and the like, of which there are a good many.

The middle ground is wide, however, and there's plenty of room for disputes among the moderates. On gender matters, for example, some moderates still frown on the use of "their" as a singular to avoid "his," and insist that we "write around" the problem. Others say of course the split infinitive rule is nonsense, but it's best to avoid splitting in order to avoid offending mossback readers. People can get up a pretty good head of steam defending positions that both qualify as moderate.

Perhaps because I still carry shreds of my ancient mossback costume, or, as I should prefer to believe, as a matter of common sense, my position is that we should bow to the "rules" whenever they don't unduly hamper us. Using "which" in the "wrong" place will cause some readers to foam at the mouth; why do it, unless there's a good reason to break the rule? If you follow the old rules, almost nobody will complain; if you break them, a fairly large part of your reader constituency will be offended, no matter how many examples you could cite. Readers who think they know grammar and usage are the ones most likely to object to modernization, and they probably make up a fairly large part of the readership of good mainstream and literary prose.

It's up to you to choose a side. Whichever way you go, somebody will say unkind things about you. Still, you're a writer; the only other choice you have is to ignore the whole business, and then people from all the camps will say you're ignorant.

Keeps things interesting, at least, and gives great pleasure to those of us who have to have a battle going somewhere, but prefer the kind that seldom leads to actual bloodshed.

One last caution--UK English and American English are still two different languages, so don't knock the other guy until you know which side off the pond she's/he's/they're standing on. (Choose any of those, and you're in big trouble with somebody. Come to think of it, there are still people who won't put up with the "on" at the end of that sentence. Have a nice day.)