Why Won’t They Heed Plain Facts?


My title asks it in words of one syllable. But if you will allow polysyllabicity: How can I persuade dyed-in-the-wool grammar conservatives to consider it at least possible in principle that their claims might need support from evidence? You wouldn’t trust a physician who ignored all evidence gathered in the past two centuries of medical science; but the analogous behavior regarding language and writing is happily accepted by academics who in other domains seem sensible.

Consider the responses to my last Lingua Franca post, “Dracula, Strunk, and Correct English Usage” (May 23). The first, by someone signed chgoodrich, commented thus (and I quote it in full):

Such out-of-proportion animus toward Strunk! Well, every man his own peeve. …

A peeve is a grievance — like a personal usage preference strong enough to provoke irritation at seeing others violating it. I never hinted at any peeves of my own (I have some, but they weren’t relevant). I simply presented the result of four modest experiments probing whether William Strunk’s grammatical dictats in The Elements of Style are respected in the prose of Dracula, a much-admired novel from Strunk’s college years (they aren’t). I added some reasons for thinking that the author, Bram Stoker, could not be argued to be uneducated or inexperienced, and concluded that Strunk’s rules seem as fictive as Stoker’s bloodsucking Transylvanian aristocrat. That isn’t disproportionate hostility; that’s a conclusion drawn from evidence.

But while people mostly now accept that vampires aren’t real, many like chgoodrich imagine that Strunk’s rules are. Millions of hours are consequently wasted by writing tutors, teaching assistants, and copy editors trying to enforce pointless maxims that did not reflect the regularities of English syntax a hundred years ago any better than they do today.

The second commenter, jri1951, who confesses to recommending The Elements of Style, asked:

Where is it written that the Victorian novelists are any more experts in good usage than Strunk is? If, as you write, much of the Elements is Strunk’s pet peeves, why can’t we also say that Stoker’s usage is a result of his pet peeves?

The sensible reply by Benjamin Lukoff was that Stoker was writing (very successfully) rather than stipulating how people should write. But that didn’t wash with jri1951, who retorted: “So any writing is OK as long as the writing is actually writing?”

It’s a familiar reaction: Lukoff accepts my suggestion that we can take Stoker’s writing as evidence concerning the rules, so jri1951 immediately conflates that with the view that anything anyone ever wrote is as good as anything else, as if there were absolutely no standards of writing quality. My careful notes on Stoker’s prestigious university education, presidency of the Philosophical Club, high-quality journalism, experience in the theater, and standing as a published novelist are all ignored. Sigh.

Again, I wish I knew how I could persuade grammar conservatives to consider, at least as a faint possibility, that evidence might be relevant. After all, if nothing about how competent people actually write in notable publications is relevant to how people should write, then grammar rules have no basis in anything. Strunk purports to be handing us the rules for being writers of good English; if he is correct, surely attested use of good English should tend to agree with his rules, ceteris paribus.

Another commenter, signed panacea, tacitly agrees that evidence might be relevant but pursues a very different line of argument against me:

I would point out his [Strunk's] intended audience is not writers of literature, but writers of ordinary communication: business reports, journalists, editorials, and the like.

An utterly misguided remark. First, its claim is clearly false (as an answering commenter signed bradypus_variegatus points out): The exemplification in The Elements of Style strongly suggests literary concerns, and shows no signs of an interest in business reports or journalism.

Second, one of the advantages of Stoker’s epistolary novel as evidence of normal fin-de-siècle writing is that it represents a miscellany of styles and dialects. There is no authorial voice, no attempt to sound literary (contrast with F. Scott Fitzgerald). Every line in Dracula purports to be from letters, telegrams, journal entries, or press clippings. We can see Stoker’s simulation of personal letters between young women, a private diary kept by a lawyer, notes on a patient written up by a medical doctor, or a Yorkshire newspaper article about a shipwreck.

Third, we have no reason to think literature typically ignores straightforward rules of writing that are appropriate for “business reports, journalists, editorials, and the like” — anyone who thinks otherwise could always look at a few business reports, newspaper editorials, etc., to see what they suggest.

What part of “Look for evidence” do these people not understand?

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