And another thing!May 6, 2011
I pasted a section of the marvelous Chicago Manual of Style to someone, to defend my use of a conjunction at the beginning of a sentence. It denounced the commonly-taught rule that forbids such use, and included this line:
In fact, a substantial percentage (often as many as 10 percent) of the sentences in first-rate writing begin with conjunctions.
Understandably, the answer that came back included this:
This is really confusing to me … because it seems to contradict the idea that if a word is frequently misused over time it becomes correct […]
Also, is there a definition for “first rate writing”?
It was a thrill to try writing a compact but reasonably thorough and accurate response:
I think we are stuck in the common conflation of language-related disciplines. Grammar, orthography, lexicography, usage, and style are different things, and they result in different kinds of advice.
Lexicography is a research discipline, so it tends to be almost totally descriptive — people who compile dictionaries just study how people use language and document it. So yes, the commonly recognized meanings of words in everyday use can and do change over time.
But usage and style are closer to art, and are more prescriptive — people who write usage and style guides try to explain how to use language as effectively as possible. Lexicography can help, but it can’t be the only factor. As with any (functional) art, one of the most reliable ways to know the right thing to do is to study respected artists (“first-rate writers”) as precedents: renowned novelists, esteemed journalists, cultural icons…
Of course, judging what is a good or bad precedent is fuzzy and difficult and controversial, and people can spend their whole lives trying to figure it out. That’s why we have all these disciplines! And reference books, for when we can’t spend our whole lives doing the research ourselves.
Here’s a software-design analogy. You could go out and describe how most software is designed, but your results would have nothing to do with how the best software is designed. Almost everyone uses a floppy disk icon to mean “save”, so it is widely recognized — but that doesn’t mean it’s good design. Likewise, Apple might do something unprecedented, like replacing OK/Cancel dialogs with single-button popovers on iPad — but that doesn’t mean it’s bad design.
…Wow, that was fun to write. LANGUAGE!