ON LANGUAGE NERDS AND NAGS

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Grammar rules are far more fluid than most people think. Robert Lane Greene explains why it's okay to split an infinitive ...

Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE

I've long been the office language nerd. This isn't a terribly distinguished position. Every office has at least one person who proof-reads with extra zeal, striking out "between you and I" with three slashes of the pen rather than the requisite one. After establishing a reputation, this stickler becomes someone colleagues timidly ask, “Can you check this…?" before sending out a note to clients. Flattered as "our office language expert" when in earshot, this chap swiftly becomes "the local grammar Nazi" when out of sight.
 
But I've changed over the years. The other day I was asked if a letter should read: "Staff members at the Local Planning Council, with whom we've worked for over ten years" or "Staff members at the Local Planning Council, which we have worked with for over ten years." My response was something people don't want to hear. I said that there's no clear answer. Both are correct.
 
"But which is more correct?" I was asked. In this case, it was a high-stakes bet between two office-mates, neither of whom cared to back down. Again, I said, both are fine. In the first version, the relative clause refers to staff members, and so it should be "whom". In the second, the relative clause refers to the council, so it should be "which". As to whether it should be "with whom we've worked" or "whom we've worked with", the answer, disappointingly, is that both are fine. The old rule against stranding a preposition at the end of a clause, like "whom we've worked with", was a peeve of the 17th-century essayist John Dryden. Over the centuries it became something every educated person "knew" was a violation. But this "rule" has been violated in common speech and in fine writing for centuries. Break it and sleep soundly.
 
This conundrum illustrates a common view of language rules: that there is only one right way. If X is permitted then Y must be forbidden. But this doesn't make sense: everyone knows that "it is" and "it's" are both correct English, if different in formality. But the red pen in the hands of your local Grammar Grundy has conditioned such a terror of being wrong that people fear variation itself. It's certainly easier to know one set of rigid rules than to develop a fingertip-feel for the nuances of syntax, word choice and mechanics. This is why the book “Elements of Style” is such a hit. William Strunk and E.B. White’s canonised system for language use is short and sharply worded. Read, memorise and you need never think again. (The Economist’s in-house style guide reads much the same way.) Readers are taught any number of things, such as when to use “that” instead of “which” and how one should never begin a sentence with “However, ...”. But such guidelines should be understood as the authors' preferences, not grammatical commandments.
 
Writing in English offers far more room for manoeuvre than some may realise. In my day job writing about law for The Economist, I've stumbled on a useful analogy: in common-law legal systems, constitutions and statutes make up the basic set of rules, but legal opinions by judges play just as big of a role in specifying how the rules apply. The original rules allow room for interpretation, so the law can change organically with time. (Code law, by contrast, leaves less discretion to judges.)
 
This kind of system requires keeping up with the times. When someone asks me, "Is such-and-such a verb?" My answer is usually, "Well, a lot of people are using it as one, including in professionally edited writing, so yes." Still nervous, they might ask, "But is it in the dictionary?" The answer is probably "not yet", but that doesn't mean much. Modern dictionary-makers are the first to explain that their job is to register the language as it is used, not to tell people how they must use it. A printed and bound dictionary starts going out of date the moment the text is sent to the typesetters. Many complained when the Oxford English Dictionary's editors announced they would include such slang as “LOL” and “OMG” (online only so far, until the next printing), but this is standard dictionary practice. If tens of millions of people are using a word over a period of years, lexicographers put it in the dictionary. It’s a difficult job—Joseph Pickett from American Heritage tells of the mistaken decision to include in one dictionary the word “beachburner”, a brief-lived term for “personal watercraft (otherwise called a "Jet-Ski"). Between “LOL” (probably around to stay for a while) and “beachburner” (dead before the dictionary hit the shelves) there are tough calls to make about new words. But it isn’t an option to simply not include neologisms and slang.
 
A lot of people don't like this fluidity. Life is tricky in a world without rules. Fortunately, language does have rules, but they are more like bedrock principles than a detailed set of by-laws covering every do and don't. A good usage dictionary should explain the principles, not simply command. Is "irregardless" acceptable?  The best guides will explain that it isn't common in quality edited prose—ie, stay away. Can I split an infinitive? Again, the best usage book will show that good writers have been doing so for centuries. Use it, but brace yourself against the occasional wheedling of a misguided nag.
 
I still relish my job as the office language nerd. People's questions sometimes get me thinking about a problem in a different way; I'll research a thorny question and learn something new as often as not. I'm aware that I disappoint people when I send them away with some Talmudic reasoning. As Truman complained of economists, they probably wish I had just one hand, rather than always saying “on the other hand…” And with grammar and usage, there seems to be an added element of masochism: they want that one hand to be a hard, unforgiving one, quick to shake a finger or slap a wrist. But the English language is far too rich for such rigidity. And the study of it keeps my own two hands more than full.

Robert Lane Greene is a correspondent for The Economist. His book about language, "You Are What You Speak", was published in March. He recently recommended five books on language and the mind here. Picture credit: Lyndi&Jason, mikecogh (both via Flickr)