On Prescriptivism

Dear prescriptivists, grammar enthusiasts, proponents of “proper” English, and anyone who thinks it is their sacred duty to “correct” the way someone speaks or writes without being asked:

Proper English is not a thing.

English has been changing since before it was even called English. If you want to go back to some “pure” or “original” form, you’ll have to look a lot further than your own dialect. (That’s right, you have a dialect. AND an accent. So do I.) Should we go back to a century or two? To Middle English? Old English? Proto-Germanic? Proto-Indo-European? Proto-Human? (Browse through Wikipedia if you want some lols about what those ancestors of English may have been like.)

When kids today use new words, phrases, or constructions, it is not a perversion of the dear old English language. It is a reminder that your beloved English is still a living language, still subject to reinterpretation with each generation. It is a reminder that language is a flexible invention of human brains that will always be subject to the creativity of its users and the social context of its use. It’s a delightful phenomenon and people like me revel in it daily.

Words like literally have changed meaning before (nice used to be not such a nice thing to call someone), words like totally have been shortened before (you probably took math in school), and nouns like adult have been verbed before (ever eyeballed something?). The growing number of uses for like is neither an accomplishment nor a travesty. All of these are certainly worth noting, but not worthy of criticism.

Most people nowadays do not instinctively know all the “right” ways to use I and me for the same reason it sounds pretentious in some circles to differentiate between who and whom. (No offense if you do. It’s fine. Just don’t expect everyone around you to have the same instincts.) English is moving away from its caseful Germanic roots. Who needs a real case system when you have word order, right?

English is not Latin.

It’s not even a Romance language (though it is arguably a creole with a significant amount of romantic influence). So let’s feel free to ignore rules like no prepositions at the end of a sentence and don’t split an infinitive. These are some of the cool things about English. Sometimes prepositions belong at the end. Sometimes they’re part of phrases like look around or go out or shut up. And it’s usually awkward to avoid when relative clauses are involved.

What is the thing on which you are working? Did you find the thing for which you were looking? You know the thing about which I am talking. That’s a lot up with which to put.

I’ll admit that my only real reason to split infinitives is because we can. Plenty of languages have one-word infinitives that make it impossible, so why not take advantage of that little quirk? Do it to go boldly where other languages literally can’t even.

Punctuation is important.

You may be surprised after all this to learn that I do have opinions on how punctuation should be used. Punctuation, quotation marks, and things like bolding or italicization are the only indication we have of prosodic information in a written format. Pauses, tone, and emphasis are often extremely important in conveying meaning. All you need to do is look at any comment section for numerous exchanges resulting in it’s called sarcasm, I was kidding, or I obviously didn’t mean that.

And now, friends, to the Oxford comma. Should every item in a list be separated by a comma? Oh yes. Yes it should. Aside from examples of potential misunderstandings that you’ve surely seen, do you not pause between each item when you speak? (If you answer no to this question, please let your local linguist know, and the study will begin shortly.) Why would you give this important information to your listeners, but not to your readers? No doubt your internal reading voice is going up and down in accordance with those question marks, pausing a little at commas, and pausing a little more at the periods. (See what I did there? Commas for everyone!)

Passive voice is useful.

If you survived that, you are ready to reconsider the passive voice. This poor construction constantly gets the will to live beat out of it by English teachers and givers of writing advice, and yet it lives on. It must be… what’s the word? Useful! Ah, yes. That’s it: useful. What does passive voice do besides making a certain segment of the English-speaking world very suspicious and upset? In its heart of hearts, passive voice is a strategy for shifting focus.

English doesn’t have a nifty little floating focus marker or a convenient way to topic-comment (ASL is a great example of a language that does). Since our most reliable marker of emphasis is how we say a word or phrase, a lot of this is lost in writing. Unless you want to start consistently putting the important parts in bold or ALL CAPS or something, we can use some help from passive constructions. We must accept the fact that the prototypical “doer” is not always the most important part, and that sometimes we simply do not know the who in a who-did-what-to-whom situation. Consider this distinction:

1) An anonymous donor gave millions.
2) Millions were donated anonymously.

In sentence number one, we are praising the donor, and in sentence number two, we are emphasizing the millions. And some other ways we could convey this situation give us yet more possibilities for putting a different spin on it:

3) We were given a multi-million dollar donation. (Emphasis on the act of giving.)
4) We received a multi-million dollar donation. (Emphasis on the act of receiving.)
5) Someone donated millions. (Emphasis on someone.)

I do understand the instinct to be suspicious of sentences which seem to leave out an actor unnecessarily, and writers should be aware of this. However, to rule them out completely is to limit the range and creative potential of English. I would much rather see every one of these used in accordance with an author’s desired shade of meaning, rather than the same “correct” structures replicated over and over with the added awkwardness of avoidance strategies. Rather than this is the way it is done advice for writers, I would encourage make sure you are conveying the meaning you intend.

But, what do I know? I’m just a language describer.

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