The Magazine

Take Your Medicine

This ‘prescriptive’ is a hard pill to swallow

Sep 1, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 47 • By BARTON SWAIM
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In 2007, I went to work as a speechwriter in a political office. Although my boss didn’t care much for my writing, the rest of the staff considered me an authority on grammar and usage. I was the writer, they seemed to reason, so I must understand the deep magic of the English language. Nearly every day my phone would ring and someone would ask, “Is it ‘none is’ or ‘none are’?” or “Can you use ‘impact’ as a verb?” or “Do you capitalize ‘judicial branch’?” 

Grammar Lesson in New York (1961)

Grammar Lesson in New York (1961)

At first I tried to respond with nuanced explanations about how this rule wasn’t followed much anymore or that usage was pretty common but best avoided. But I sensed impatience. All my questioners wanted to know was what was right and what was wrong. They didn’t care what was “generally accepted” or defensible; they wanted to know what they should say in order not to sound stupid. So I gave it to them on my own authority: “none is”; “impact” is never a verb; “judicial branch” is lower case. That seemed to satisfy.

And that’s all most readers want from a book on English grammar and usage. They want to know what to write and what to avoid—not because they want to follow arbitrary rules set down by the anonymous rulemakers of the past, but because they want to express themselves in ways that don’t cause distraction. Similarly, an American preparing for a holiday in Italy may want to know if Puglia is pronounced with a hard or silent “g”—not because pronouncing it incorrectly will mystify his Italian hosts, or because he doesn’t understand that pronunciations are mere conventions and not laws of nature, but because he doesn’t want to sound like an ignoramus. 

It doesn’t matter how many academic linguists tell us that language changes over time and that what’s accepted today was considered ungrammatical a century ago. It doesn’t matter how many books—Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct (1994), David Crystal’s How Language Works (2005), Ammon Shea’s Bad English (2014)—explain that grammatical rules stifle expression and stunt a language’s natural evolution. All of this may be true, but none of it matters. Educated people still want to know whether they should write “amuck” or “amok,” “between” or “among,” “flounder” or “founder,” “infer” or “imply,” “it’s he” or “it’s him.” 

The market is constantly ripe, therefore, for any book that will flout the fashion for permissiveness and explain to readers in direct, unfussy prose how they should construct sentences and what mistakes they should avoid. Hence, the success of Bryan Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage (1998), a highly prescriptivist guide to usage that’s now in a third and much-expanded edition as Garner’s Modern American Usage. (A typical entry in Garner: “Impactful, adj., is barbarous jargon from the 1970s.”) Similarly, the transatlantic popularity of Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots, & Leaves (2003)—a book purporting to lay down the law on matters of punctuation—suggests that readers don’t want to be told one more time that the rules don’t matter.

Another book, this one more narrowly concerned with grammar, has been enjoying success in Great Britain and has just been published here: Gwynne’s Grammar by N. M. Gwynne. The author, a retired businessman, teaches Latin and English grammar in a variety of settings. His book explains the rudiments of grammar—parts of speech, punctuation, and so on—in a manner that’s at once warm and utterly self-assured. 

I suspect the appeal of Gwynne’s Grammar derives, in large part, from the author’s profoundly counter-cultural approach. He is an unashamed prescriptivist: someone who believes it’s legitimate to prescribe conventions by which people ought to abide rather than merely describe what those conventions are. On the question of whether the masculine pronoun may be used for a person of either sex (e.g., “When a diplomat claims immunity, you can’t help but assume he has done something wrong”), Gwynne’s judgment is unambiguous. Many writers would substitute “he or she” to avoid the charge of sexism; some, reveling in political correctness, would write “she.” A distressingly large majority would use the ungrammatical “they.” Gwynne thinks this last is “offensive to logic and common sense” and “shockingly illiterate when in writing.” 

He is an enthusiastic proponent of memorization, too, putting him well outside post-1950s conventional wisdom. He urges readers young and old to memorize the book’s definitions of keywords (“subjective,” for example).