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Thursday, May 03, 2007

Welcome to Babel

A few months ago, I had a brief flirtation with a blog that concerned itself with the problems faced by copyeditors. The posts concerned matters of style, grammar, and usage, and the examples used were generally taken from the host’s place of work, a prominent American newspaper. Despite having been away from actively editing copy for some time, I pitched right in, contributing defenses of The Elements of Style concerning the rules advising use of the active voice over the passive and the misperception that Strunk and White proposed that one never use the word “that.” (Professor Strunk’s prejudice was against the phrase “the fact that,” which he claimed “should be revised out of every sentence in which it occurs.”)

Over time, I became a regular participant and would pop off on every subject, oftentimes in complete contradiction to my actual practice. On one occasion in particular, I came out strongly and vociferously against starting a sentence with “and.” As I worked on my novel later that day, a certain conjunction kept working its way to the front of the line in sentence after sentence. Of course, I never revealed my duplicity on the blog; I considered it a family matter and nobody else’s damned business.

My participation ceased after the blog, which had been home to only current or former copyeditors, started to be visited by linguists. Now, I have nothing against the study of linguistics. I’m sure it has its uses, and it certainly keeps those who are interested in it busy. However, whenever the concern at hand is copyediting, linguistics and the people who study it are as useful as a paint roller is to a miniaturist.

Since linguistics is the study of human speech, no approach can be considered right or wrong, just as no frog can be considered right or wrong to a biologist. On the other hand, copyediting is the art of establishing right from wrong in the use of language, specifically the use of written language.

And this is where the conflicts arose.

“Ain’t” was suddenly defended as being no worse than “am not” or “amn’t” if the writer was feeling Irish. Just like the kid in the wheelchair down the street, “ain’t” wasn’t right or wrong or better or worse. It was just different. And to suggest otherwise was to be narrow-minded and bigoted and just an all-around nogoodnik.

My take on the subject was somewhat different. I stood with those who thought that “ain’t” had little place in formal writing, except when quoting someone or in fiction. Even then, there could be exceptions and no one advocated an Amish-like shunning or stoning over an occasional “ain’t.” After all, sometimes there just ain’t no word like it.

This skirmish was merely a precursor to the real battle though, which was prompted by a discussion concerning the phrase, “could care less.”

A group of us came out against it since the original phrase, “couldn’t care less,” seemed to more accurately reflect the intentions of the speaker. Others defended "could care less" as being an idiomatic expression. And that's fine with me. I disagree with that point-of-view, but it is a legitimate one and one I respect.

The problem for me came up when someone--a linguist--posted a comment that responded to one of mine. This comment was filled with jargon and buzz words and academic nonsense and ultimately argued that "could care less" is correct simply because people say that. I responded with a long, angry comment in which I attacked every point young Poindexter had made, and, not enjoying getting that worked up over a phrase that should be avoided whenever possible in both forms, left that blog and have never been back.

It is important that the idea of correctness in the use of the English language be preserved. Without having some standard, some lingua franca that all agree to, our ability to communicate becomes circumscribed and the American English community will slowly devolve into a loose coalition of small linguistic villages, shells of oarsmen all rowing in their own rhythm and direction.

As I pointed out in my farewell comment on that blog, I can make myself known in any group of English-speakers in the world, even when I might have trouble understanding those I am speaking to. The reason is that I speak Standard American English. And I will continue to prefer "couldn't care less" to "could care less" while trying to avoid both. Although, in the case of the proper use of language, I really could care less.