An Unrepentant Prescriptivist

Careless Talk Costs Lives
By Bernard Wood
April 06, 2013

The New Yorker is a constant source of delight. If a person finds nothing of interest to read or look at in an issue you should check their vital signs. The book reviews in the back are the best sort of book review in the sense that they are essays that use one or more books as a peg, but they range widely and educate along the way.

Nearly a year ago Joan Acocella wrote a review of a book by Henry Hitchings called The Language Wars: A History of Proper English. Hitchings (whose name is suspiciously like Henry Higgins of My Fair Lady fame) classifies writers into two categories, ‘prescriptivists’ and ‘descriptivists’. Basically ‘prescriptivists’ like to follow rules, such as those set out by Fowler in his A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, or by Strunk and White in their The Elements of Style. ‘Descriptivists’ on the other hand think folk like Fowler, Strunk and White are hidebound and dictatorial. ‘Descriptivists’ set little store by conventions; their credo is feel free to use language as you think fit.

I thought of this essay, and the two philosophies, because for the past week or so I seem to have been doing more than the usual amount (>50% of work time) of reviewing, writing, and editing. Some manuscripts have been a pleasure to read, some have been less pleasurable, and some have been frankly painful. So are there any rules about writing analagous to those proposed by Fowler et al about word use?

Here are some pieces of advice given to me over the years: 

  • A teacher gave me some wise advice – “mean what you write” and “write what you mean”. What she was trying to impress on me was that imprecise and incorrect writing is more often than not the product of imprecise and incorrect thinking. You cannot write clearly if you do not think clearly. She was also hammering into me that words have consequences (she was evidently a ‘prescriptivist’). Thus, if you write “throughout Africa” then you mean “all over Africa”, not just “in East and southern Africa”. So before you send me something to read, please read it over first to check that A) you have written what you meant to write, and B) that you mean what you did write. I will take you literally.
  • Don’t use two (or three, four, etc.) words when one will do. Think about this thought experiment. Every word you write costs you, personally, $100. So go back over what you have written and reduce your tab to the minimum.
  • Use the simplest Anglo-Saxon word, not the fanciest latinate word you can find.
  • Avoid meaningless qualifiers (e.g., ‘very’).
  • Never start a sentence with ‘Interestingly, these results …..’. See comment on ‘very’.
  • My height is a datum; the heights of my grandchildren are data.
  • Be accurate. I was mortified to get a low’ish mark in an Anatomy ‘spot’ exam, which involves identifying structures on a cadaver that have a pin stuck in them. I was convinced I had labeled most, if not all, of the structures correctly, but not according to my exacting professor. He explained that I had neglected to put the side of all of the bilateral structures (e.g., radial artery, femoral nerve, etc.). He pointed out, correctly, there is no such thing as a femoral nerve, but there is a right femoral nerve and a left femoral nerve. If you ordered a ‘femoral nerve’ from the great modern human spare part center in the sky, your order will almost certainly be returned with the query – ‘right’ or ‘left’? They are not interchangeable. Harsh, but just, treatment. So please, if you want me to take home the message that a sample has a wide range of variation, please do not refer to it as ‘variable’. The weather is variable. I doubt you think your sample changes when the weather does.

In WWII in the UK there was a campaign called ‘Careless Talk Costs Lives’ to warn people they must assume spies could be in their midst. Less consequentially, but using the same theme, be warned that ‘careless writing’ can ‘cost’ a refereed publication or a grant, and may cost you a place in graduate school, a post-doc, or a tenure-track job.

So is the “New Yorker is a constant source of delight”? Of course not, unless I read it 24/7. But it is “a continual source of delight.”


‘The English Wars’ Joan Acocella The New Yorker, May 14th, 2012.