A Prescriptive Grammarian Goofs

I enjoyed a post by Geoffrey Pullum at Language Log today for several reasons. (The post provides notes and links to reviews of Strictly English: The Correct Way to Write… and Why It Matters. You’ll see soon why I don’t include a purchase link for the book.) First, prescriptive grammarians get on my nerves and are frequently wrong in my experience. (If you wonder how I can call them “wrong” when I’m not a prescriptivist myself, then read on!) As an editor I often encounter confident assertions that this or that text is just plain wrong, or simply terrible, only to discover that the original text is actually much more in accord with current usage.

But again, as both editor and publisher (my own company, Energion Publications), I enjoy book reviews. It may surprise some people that I enjoy both good and bad reviews. This is a great example of a negative review. Consider:

I know that a few tender souls will feel that there must be something good in everything, and that I really shouldn’t be so negative. So I will say one favorable thing about the book. Holding it in my hands did not make my skin erupt in a horrible disfiguring disease. There. I’m done. Don’t tell me I don’t know how to be fair and balanced.

And he doesn’t stop there. He provides specific examples of some of these problems, some of which he calls “staggeringly erroneous.” You’ve really made it when a statement of yours is called “staggeringly erroneous.”

Of course, I probably wouldn’t be so delighted with the sting in the prose of this review if I didn’t agree so thoroughly with the conclusions.

Language is complex. Language changes. Language is fun.

Oh! I almost forgot! There really is such a thing as a singular they.

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