Punk or Fogey

I enjoy reading Bridging the Unbridgeable, a linguistics blog out of Leiden University that focuses on the use of usage (or style) guides. As its authors point out:

Usage guides are a controversial topic among linguists because of their function to present a norm of correctness to whoever wishes to consult them. Linguistics as a discipline, however, is concerned with describing rather than prescribing usage. Nevertheless, usage guides are extremely popular with the general public, and even increasingly so despite centuries of prescriptivism

When I first started out as a copyeditor, I remember being obsessed with rules. I believed that there was one correct way to use language, grammar, and punctuation in every instance, and I did not fully understand that language is an ever-changing, ever-evolving process. I see this mindset in young proofreaders and copyeditors today. Over time, however, I have come to understand that while general rules are useful and allow for better communication, internal consistency in a document trumps dogmatism. In some cases, the general rule can be ignored when the reason for deviation is sound and communication is enhanced rather than constricted by the change.

Bridging the Unbridgeable unearthed a terrific quote from Kingsley Amis’s style guide The King’s English that clearly identifies, in a particularly British, class-conscious manner, the two extremes of language users:

Berks are careless, coarse, crass, gross and of what anybody would agree is a lower social class than one’s own. They speak in a slipshod way with dropped Hs, intruded glottal stops and many mistakes in grammar. Left to them the English language would die of impurity, like late Latin.

Wankers are prissy, fussy, priggish, prim and of what they would probably misrepresent as a higher social class than one’s own. They speak in an over-precise way with much pedantic insistence on letters not generally sounded, especially Hs. Left to them the language would die of purity, like medieval Latin.

Martin Amis, writing in the Guardian, suggests that his father’s dated terms, Berks and Wankers, can be replaced with something like Punks and Fogeys (but even those terms now sound a bit dated to my ear). Call the struggle what you will, I have found that in my role as an editor walking a middle path helps me best support writers that I work with and keeps me continually open to the possibility of surprising or interesting language variation within structured guidelines.


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