Guardian or gatekeeper?

The Boston Globe today reviews N. M. Gwynne’s Gwynne’s Grammar: The Ultimate Introduction to Grammar and the Writing of Good English (available for pre-order on Amazon.com). Gwynne is a strict traditionalist and prescriptivist—in other words, a “scold”—who holds to the view that it’s been all downhill for English since Shakespeare.

I’ve been trying to improve myself with courses from The Teaching Company (highly recommended, by the way!), including some of their English language courses, and I know more today than they taught me in school. As a technical communicator, in the past I would have sided with Gwynne and other guardians of strict rules. No split infinitives! No jargon! Today I see myself more as a gatekeeper. I cannot, and should not, try to stop change in English, which is, for better or for worse, inevitable. But I can control the kinds of changes made, at least in the documents I’m responsible for—er, for which I’m responsible.

There have always been guardians of language who wanted to stop the wheel of change right where they stood. The French Academy actually has advisory authority on what is French and what is not. (They seem most concerned with keeping English words out.) But English has no such body, and anyway the language has changed continuously, and vibrantly, throughout its history. All spoken languages do.

It’s almost amusing to watch reactionaries trying to pick a moment when to hit the brakes. Why stop at Shakespeare? He personally coined upwards of 2,000 words, so it might have made more sense to stop just before him! And the wheel continued to turn after him; today, the Bard’s plays require heavy annotation to be understood. (There are passages that, if understood in their original sense, would be censored from every high school English textbook in the country.)

The Globe cites Jonathan Swift’s 1712 disparagement of—or may I call it slagging?—word constructions such as “disturb’d” for “disturbed.” I once edited a scholarly work on Milton, and in my ignorance I wondered why Milton used apostrophes that way. Surely there’s no typographic savings? But Milton wasn’t saving space, he was specifying pronunciations that fit his rhythmic meters, and also capturing the way people in his time were beginning to pronounce such words. “Disturbed” is spelled exactly as it was pronounced when English spelling was first typeset: a three-syllable word, “dis-TUR-bed.” But by Milton’s time the apostrophe captured a change in pronunciation, in this case to the two syllables we pronounce today: “dis-TURBD.”

In fact, the notoriously difficult spelling of English words, which foreign and native speakers alike despair of learning and Mark Twain mocked, is actually exactly correct and phonetically accurate, if you go back to when English spelling was regularized. The apostrophe convention in “disturb’d” eventually fell away, leaving the “regular” and understood pronunciation but an illogical spelling. Another example is “knight,” with half the letters silent, which is spelled exactly as pronounced at the time. (Combine the Danish name Knüt and the German word for night, nacht, and you’ve got it.) Maybe we should have stopped right then? We could still use the thorn (þ), an obsolete character from Old English pronounced “th” but initially printed as “y,” which is where we get the cutesy construction “ye,” as in “Ye Olde Twee Shoppe,” so annoyingly popular around these parts. But not even printing, which froze the written language, could stop the wheel.

I cut my professional teeth on Strunk and White. Modern linguists think of Strunk as somewhat fusty, but I’m a writer, not a grammarian, and I look to The Elements of Style for advice on writing well, not just grammatically. But I have learned that some of the rules aren’t actually rules. When scholars began to capture the rules of English grammar, the language already had Celtic, German, Norse, French, and Latin influences. The first English grammarians, following the model of Latin grammarians, presumed that English was descended from Latin and thus had to have Latin grammatical rules. But English is not Latin, and Latin grammar does not apply. Caesar could not have told his legions to boldly go where no man has gone before because the split infinitive did not exist in Latin. But Captain Kirk’s orders were correct.

What is the tie-in to technical communication? For one thing, we are deluged with jargon. It grows like weeds from several roots, including genuinely new ideas and usages, laziness, and ESL writers. I’m all for holding the line, especially when I can correct an error or use an existing English word. But some amount of growth and change is inevitable and not altogether unhealthy.

For example, I worked at a company that created products and services that caught people trying to defraud cell-phone carriers. Our marketing presentations called such people “fraudsters,” but I refused to use a made-up word, instead using the existing English word “fraud,” which means exactly what we intended and dates back at least to the 14th century. But the product manager insisted on “fraudster,” claiming we wanted to capture mindshare (yes, I know), and overruled me. I lost that one, but hey, I tried to stop the wheel. (Today a Google search reveals 1,250,000 Web instances of “fraudster.” I could claim our company made its mark on the language, but no; Merriam-Webster lists that word as well, and claims usage back to 1960.) Recently, though, I successfully held the line against “numberical” (yes, spell checker, I know) in place of “numerical,” even if it is a correct term in some small circles. And just this week I filed a bug against the use of “VSA`s” (back apostrophe and all) instead of “VSAs” in a label. We’ll see if I win that one.

As technical communicators, even if we let through some jargon, we still need to regularize spelling, grammar, and usage, even of jargon, for the sake of our readers. Even if the word is new, we can at least use the word in a regular way that lets readers decipher whether it’s a noun, verb, or adjective. For example, it’s too late to stop the verbification of “Google” (13.8 million hits today, and already in Merriam-Webster). Shakespeare would have verbified “Google.” However, if ever I am forced (kicking and screaming, I assure you) to use the verb “to google” in a technical document, I can hold the line against “Googling,” which is abuse of trademark, and ensure that the verb is used with correct English forms and tenses:

  • I google, I googled, I will google …
  • You google, you googled, you will google …
  • He googles, she googled, he will google …
  • They google, they googled, they will google …

(Interesting language trivia: Did you know that all irregular English verbs are old? No new verbs in English will ever be irregular. Why? See above.)

Oh, well: I’ll keep up the fight, but there’s only so much we can, or ought to, do. I intend to buy a copy of Gwynne’s book, and chortle over his astringent disparagements of modern English usage. If he doesn’t rail against “google” as a verb, I shall be disappointed.

Published by Steven Jong

I am a lifelong technical communicator, a Fellow of the Society for Technical Communication (STC), a former STC board member, and chair of the first STC Certification Commission. I occasionally blog about these and other topics.

2 thoughts on “Guardian or gatekeeper?

  1. N M Gwynne is mad. He thinks the sun orbits the earth. He thinks the atom does not exist. He thinks there was no Holocaust. He thinks Hitler was an agent of the Jews. He is an antisemite. He was accused in Australia of child cruelty. Stop giving him publicity.

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