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More Snarky Descriptivism

Your Humble Blogger has written before about being a snarky descriptivist; in general, I grew up a stickler (essentially an assertionist, except that my assertions were backed by such authorities as Edwin Newman, William Safire and my mother) but have been eschewing prescriptivism since my early twenties. The stickler lies close to the surface, though; an actual error in language use (or punctuation or so on) often provokes gleeful scorn on my part before by better angel reminds me (of Lex Hartmania if nothing else).

Still, the point of being a descriptivist is this: the language people actually speak (and write and text) trumps the rules in books (and web sites). This means that if I screw up the language people actually speak, I is wrong, or at least wrong for my context (which is a complicated issue indeed, but somehow intuitively gettable). It also means that awareness of audience is of primary importance, which I think is an excellent rule for communication anyway. If you are writing to a stodgy person, stodge away. If you are writing for a hep person, put some hep in your step. If you are writing for a niche audience, make sure to put in lots of identifiers that your readers are in the Inner Ring, and if you are writing for a wide audience, make sure to avoid obscurity. If, as Maimonides says, the Divine speaks to us (through Scripture) in the language of humans, how much more so do we speak to each other in the language of humans, not the language of rulebooks.

That said, this has been bugging me for several days now. Quisling is just not a verb. It just isn’t. It’s not. You cannot quisle someone. You cannot be quisled. I mean, it’s wrong to be a quisling, much more seriously wrong, but it’s wrong to say that someone is in the act of quisling someone else. I don’t care who used it or is using it or how often, it’s just wrong.

Frankly, if you absolutely had to verb the thing, I would prefer keeping the ing: He decided to quisling his start-up partners and retire; The CEO was quislinged by the CFO; The board members were all quislinging as hard as they could. Those are all terrible, yes, but less slate-scratchingly terrible than their ing-less counterparts.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


There was a time when I was young when I thought you could "misle" someone, so I sympathize with the users of "quisle."

Sure, sympathy for those who have been misled into error—but it's wrong nonetheless.


Although your first paragraph here applies to me, too (semi-reformed prescriptivist who occasionally backslides), I have a soft spot for back-formations; I'm often tickled by them. As is true here; I rather like “quisle” as a verb.

“I don't know, you naughty boy, I've never kippled!”

...On a side note (which then expanded to take up most of this comment, though I'm responding to Volokh rather than to you), I don't think I agree with Volokh about assertionists; his formulation, as I understand it, seems to suggest that pepole who argue that a given construction is Correct based on an authority are less objectionable than people who argue that it's Correct in spite of an authority's statement to the contrary. Which makes me wonder: where are the authorities getting their rules, and their authority? In my view, it all comes back to oral tradition; we're taught what The Rules are by people who learned The Rules from people who learned The Rules from etc. In some cases the rules do go back to particular specific authorities—who made them up.

So I think all statements that thus-and-such is Correct use of language really mean “I was taught that this is Correct.” More often than not, there's an implicit “by my high school English teacher” (or sometimes “by my parents”) at the end of that. I don't see a need to distinguish between the people who had a rule drilled into them by an English teacher and the people who looked up a rule in an authoritative style manual. Almost all of these rules are basically arbitrary.

But the flip side of that is that (as with gender, or money, or honor) just because they're arbitrary doesn't mean they're not important. I was going to say something about audience here, but you already said what I was going to say, in your second paragraph, so never mind.

Well, I think one difference that Mr. Volokh and the Language Log boys see between assertionism and prescriptivism is that the assertionist states that Good Writing follows Rule X without evidence that anybody has ever followed Rule X. The prescriptivist deprecates (f'r'ex) splitting infinitives, and it's clear that there was a century or so during which infinitive-splitting was actually frowned upon. The assertionist claims that the definite article should always be pronounced with a long e, or just deprecates adverbs altogether, believing that this is something that All Good Writers Know, presumably believing that this was What We Were All Taught (or Should Have Been Taught).

Having said that—was Strunk an assertionist, or Fowler? If Fowler was an assertionist, and I think it's hard to claim otherwise, and Strunk uses Fowler, is Strunk now a prescriptivist rather than an assertionist? If everybody suddenly decides, as they did for a while, that speaker-modifying hopefully is terrible, sloppy writing but speaker-modifying frankly is fine—and everyone thinks that this was always the rule—is is prescriptivism or assertionism? So, yes, I think you are right to be skeptical of the category.



Col. Mustard: Do you like Kipling, Miss Scarlet?
Miss Scarlett: Sure, I'll eat anything.

The way I see it, there are four levels of language.

At the root, there is the built-in mechanism in humanity which all of us have (with the exception of victims of certain kinds of brain damage). This mechanism is the province of neuro-linguistic scientist types. Chomsky and Pinker are this type, and Pinker's writings are actually fun to read on the subject, cf. The Language Instinct and Words and Rules. At this level, humans can sense correctness and incorrectness, and at this level, quisle is a perfectly cromulent word. As is cromulent, for that matter. The rules are built in, but words are fairly arbitrary, and as long as the words follow the basic rules, they're valid. This is the level at which verbing weirds language.

The next most instinctive level is spoken language. Here, language begins to be infected by memetic forces, such that cromulent and quisle are precisely as valid as the cultural gestalt allows them to be. If your subculture knows and uses the word, hey presto! It's a word, amirite, G? However, this level is affected by a bunch of weird factors, and here's where V's audience part of the equation comes in. Cromulent is only valid to people who find the Simpsons amusing or people who find people who find the Simpsons amusing amusing. If you catch my meaning, Master Frodo, sir. Using such memetic idioms to an English speaker from another country or culture may entirely lose them.

Casual written language is the next level; again, audience is important. txt5p34k is fine for some folks, abhorrent to others and runon sentences punctuation and spelling, let alone Correctitude and grammer maybe left by the wayside. Some people will care deeply, even violently, about this level. This is where the arbitrariness and prescriptivism/assertionism come in. However, at this level, it's typically unimportant. You're either communicating with friends and family or people who don't know you and never will. Impressing these people is fairly low-impact on your life and theirs. This is the level of Internet trolls, emails, Facebook, SMS messages, and other personal correspondence. It can be quite artful, but it doesn't have to be. Not much is riding on it.

Formal writing, though, is a game with stakes. The stakes may not be terribly high (how important is it that I got an A on my Philosophy 301 final paper, when it comes right down to it? I mean, it was a great paper, but who gives a shit?), but there are stakes nonetheless. Here, the goal is not necessarily to impress the reader but at least not to disgust the reader with your ignorance. Writing a cover letter for a job interview, it's probably better not to split infinitives because you never know if your reader is going to be a schoolmarmish thug. This is the level where people care about "I was taught this is Correct," and it can be important to know the going conventions. While it is true that the Chicago Manual of Style finds a split infinitive to be acceptable, that doesn't mean that your audience has read Chicago's opinion on the topic. At this level, knowing the rules is at least somewhat important; following them may be optional depending on your intended effect, but knowing them? Crucial. At this level, I would be conscious of the convention not to end a sentence with a preposition, nor would I use words such as ginormous, quisle, or embiggen, cromulent though any such usage may be.



Your levels make sense to me (although, of course, each level could be profitably broken down into more levels, if one had the time and inclination). And part of the issue is that people want to apply formal-writing norms to casual written language, surely, and part of the problem is that people want to apply casual-writing norms to formal language. But there's also the thing where, in Mr. Volokh's recent experience, a commenter insisted that in formal written English it is incorrect to say He asked whether it was… rather than he asked whether it were…. That has never been the preferred use. If you choose in formal writing (such as a cover letter or a class assignment or a newspaper editorial) to use whether it were, there is a substantial risk of running afoul of people who will consider it hyper-correction.

Further, while I do think it's important to Know the Rules and Know your Audience, I also think it is important to exercise judgment (or even judgement) about how far to go to accommodate cranks. I am perfectly willing to avoid the split infinitive, to abide by the imaginary rule for that and which, and (depending on my mood) to use the serial comma, but I am not willing to upend my sentences to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition, or to mangle my sentences to de-dangle a participle. Choices for individuals to make, of course, but we don't want to push even our most formal writing down to the crankest common denominator.


Looking at the matter historically, I might note that English evolved for centuries without the prescriptive restraints of authority upon it, and hence its multiplicity of forms and deep knowledge of unruliness continue to make it disinclined to confine itself in precise, formal attire. When a desire during the Renaissance arose for English to be elevated once again to the dignities associated with being a language of church, government, and learning, the prescriptive authority to which the grammarians turned in their search for ways to regulate English was Latin, the very language whose authoritative role they were seeking to displace. Latin's grammar and usage had been exquisitely refined, of course, by an ancient tradition of rhetoric and, and (by the early Middle Ages) its forms had been rescued from the indignities of innovation by being separated, as a language of church, government, and learning, from the vernaculars that sprang from it all over post-Roman Europe. The early, serious grammarians of English were attempting to give English grammar the order and precision of Latin grammar. The most laudable element in English prescriptivism is that which aims to make written English capable of precise, nuanced meaning by creating and maintaining the nuances of distinction of which a language like Latin is capable. Its rules aim not at arbitrariness but at exactness. Of course, the poetic dynamism of English resists this dry, technical approach to the communicative power of language, seeing in the prescriptive grammarian who claims to be aiming to improve the English language by subjecting it to an ultimately Latin authority as little better than a Quisling. The independent English neologist, blunderbuss in hand, staunchly refuses to be quisled, though in so doing he make himself ridiculous.

Well played, Christopher. Well played.


Is a shaggy quisle squib a shaggy squisle?

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