Fussbudgets and freewheelers

Originally posted on Grammar Monkeys on June 18, 2010.

In discussions of language and grammar, you may have heard the terms “prescriptivist” and “descriptivist.” These are the two extremes: the fussbudgets and the freewheelers. But a lot of us, even editors, fall somewhere in the middle.

Prescriptivists adhere to a rigid standard of letterslanguage, with clearly defined right and wrong ways to say something, never mind how many people use different forms, never mind whether these “wrong” forms are perfectly clear and grammatically unobjectionable. They “prescribe” the proper way to speak and write; anything less is a degradation of the language.

These are the folks who form organizations like the Queen’s English Society or the Academie Francaise, defending the language from change, and, therefore, degradation. (Some interesting reaction to the QES is here and here.)

These are also the folks who write us letters — letters, not e-mail — enumerating a week’s worth of split infinitives that appeared in the newspaper.

Descriptivists, on the other hand, think that language is whatever people speak. They “describe” language without passing judgment.

These are the folks who say that if people use “infer” instead of “imply,” it’s an alternative meaning for “infer,” even though the meanings are opposing and someone reading or hearing may get confused about what’s really meant.

These are also the people who study variations in pronunciation or meaning to determine how and how fast language changes, and how these changes spread. But they are not the people to take your grammar peeves to.

As newspaper copy editors, we fall between these two camps, but not quite in the middle. Our job is to effectively communicate the news. To do this we need to ensure that news articles are, above all, clear and accurate. We also need to ensure that they set the right tone: authoritative, but not stuffy; accessible, but not sloppy. This requires precision — and, yes, some nitpickiness — in the use of language.

We also follow Associated Press style, which helps us keep spelling, capitalization and the like consistent. This is so our readers aren’t distracted from the news by wondering why we wrote “health care” in one story and “healthcare” in another.

But we also realize that language evolves and usage changes, and that new words enter the language as others quietly exit. We leave split infinitives and sentence-ending prepositions alone, and don’t waste time changing “over” to “more than” when we’re talking about quantities.

We are particular about usage, in the interest of clarity and accuracy. We are particular about syntax and punctuation and wordiness for the same reason. We know that adhering to certain standards of language imparts credibility to writing — any writing, not just in newspapers — and that messy or murky writing drives readers away regardless of content.

These standards mean that we lean to the prescriptivist side of center, and they form the basis of our short language tips and grammar answers you may have seen on Twitter.

But we don’t fuss over language — unless you use “gift” as a verb. That’s when we get peevish.