Friday, April 10, 2015

Rules ignoring people

In a Facebook discussion just now, I took my usual "descriptivist" position in a discussion with "prescriptivists" (quotation marks since I don't particularly like the word "descriptivist" and my conversation partners might not like "prescriptivists" either). As part of the discussion, I contrasted some examples of what I called "real" rules with the "rules of grammar" that get so much attention:
Here's an example of a rule in English: the order of modifiers before a noun is fixed. We say "an attractive pink swimsuit" but not "a pink attractive swimsuit." Or another: what types of construction can follow a particular verb? "Risk" takes a gerund phrase ("you risked going too far") but not an infinitive (*"risked to go too far") or a noun clause (*"risked that you went too far"). These are real rules of English grammar. Pretty much all the rules that get argued about in public are not "rules" like this. "They" cannot be singular: demonstrably false. The "who/whom" distinction is a matter of subject/object uses: demonstrably false. "That" is for integrated relatives, "which" for supplementary relatives: demonstrably false.
One of the others involved in the discussion is an excellent poet and sharp thinker who I have great respect for (and who would definitely prefer I had said "whom I have great respect for" – I'm not sure what her position on the stranded preposition there might be). She responded aphoristically:
Andrew, the only difference I can see between the rules you cite as real and the rules you cite as demonstrably false is that the former aren't ignored quite as often as the latter.
To which I could only respond that she had hit the nail on the head:
Exactly. The "rules that are often ignored" are not real rules, but pretend rules. In fact, that helps me with a nice chiasmus to state my position: with such rules, it's not that people are ignoring rules. Rather, it's that rules are ignoring people.
And that's the purpose of this post: to make a permanent record of my nice chiasmus. 

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