Why Prescriptivism?

I often read Wilson Follett’s Modern American Usage: A Guide, both as a guide to good writing and as a source of wisdom. It is also an antidote to Language Log, whose contributors often (mostly?) deride prescriptivism in language.

When I read Follett’s book for its wisdom, I open it randomly. Recent explorations have led me to these passages:

It is … one of the striking features of the libertarian position [with respect to language] that it preaches an unbuttoned grammar in a prose style that is fashioned with the utmost grammatical rigor. H.L. Mencken’s two thousand pages on the vagaries of the American language are written in the fastidious syntax of a precisian. If we go by what these men do instead of by what they say, we conclude that they all believe in conventional grammar, practice it against their own preaching, and continue to cultivate the elegance they despise in theory….

[T]he artist and the user of language for practical ends share an obligation to preserve against confusion and dissipation the powers that over the centuries the mother tongue has acquired. It is a duty to maintain the continuity of speech that makes the thought of our ancestors easily understood, to conquer Babel every day against the illiterate and the heedless, and to resist the pernicious and lulling dogma that in language … whatever is is right and doing nothing is for the best. [pp. 30-31]

*   *   *

IThis book] accept[s] the long-established conventions of prescriptive grammar … on the theory that freedom from confusion is more desirable than freedom from rule…. [p. 243]

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Monday Musings

Seven years ago yesterday I became a resident of Austin, Texas. To put it differently, yesterday was the seventh anniversary of my residency in Texas. Note well that I say “seventh anniversary,” not “seven-year anniversary,” in the usage of the day.  Why? The word “anniversary” means “the annually recurring date of a past event.” To write or say “x-year anniversary” is redundant as well as graceless. To write or say “x-month anniversary” is nonsensical; what is meant is that such-and-such happened “x” months ago.

A long life is a good thing if it is lived well and in good health. Among my male ancestors, I have a paternal great, great, great, great (g-g-g-g) grandfather who lived to the age of 92. Perhaps he owed his longevity to a vigorous life; he emigrated from Dusseldorf to the colony of Pennsylvania, and fought on the wrong side in the Revolutionary War, for which he was rewarded with a tract of land in Canada. One of his grandsons (my paternal g-g-grandfather) lived to the age of 80. On my mother’s side, I can claim a g-grandfather who made it to 84 and a g-g-grandfather who lived to the age of 87. I do not know how well these ancestors lived, or the state of their health as old men, but they have (in some measure) bequeathed to me a good chance for a long life. Living well and to doing what I can to stay healthy are my responsibilities.

Speaking of genealogy, if you want to trace your “roots” without spending a lot of money, buy a software package (like Legacy Family Tree), consult your relatives and whatever materials they may have compiled, and hit the internet, where there is a wealth of free information. It takes a lot of searching and cross-checking to make connections and fill gaps, and what you find may not be well documented, but in the end you will have a much richer picture of your origins. I have traced 16 generations of my family, from Orne, France, in the 1500s to Virginia, U.S.A., in the 2000s.

All of this revelatory rambling reminds me of Facebook. I acquired a Facebook account so that I can follow the remarks of my daughter-in-law, who posts (usually) funny notes about events in the life her and my son’s household. Unfortunately, I have acquired a few other Facebook “friends” whose musings are of no interest to me. I have solved that problem by (a) hiding them on my home page and (b) going directly to my daughter-in-law’s Facebook “wall.”

Facebook “friends,” in most cases, are like work “friends.” It is possible to have a real, long-standing friendship with a work “friend,” but (in my experience) almost all work “friendships” end when “friends” no longer share an employer. Moreover, the older one gets, the less interested one is in acquiring friends (work-related or otherwise). I have two long-standing friendships; both started at work, but a long time ago (40 and 38 years, respectively), and neither is a close or deep one. I made my last work “friend” (and last friend of any kind) about 25 years ago, and that “friendship” dissolved about 15 years ago, even while both of us were still working at the same place. Other friendships — with neighbors, school-mates, and fellow collegians — have long since died of geographic, economic, and intellectual distance. I  have a small circle of acquaintances in Austin; they are good for a laugh over dinner and drinks, but I have no wish to become close to any of them (nor would I, even if they weren’t lefties, which is about all you can find in Austin). Given what I have just said, it is possible that I owe my dearth of friendships to my aloof personality (see this, this, and this). Friendships are said to contribute to good health and longevity, to which I say “bah, humbug!”

Which brings me to families. Tolstoy opens Anna Karenina with this famous sentence: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I believe that happy families are as rare as close, long-standing friendships. I have a rough model of family relationships and the degree of lovingness and mutual regard that is to be found in them. From closeness to distance, it goes like this:

Spouse-children-grandchildren (all about the same)



Nieces and nephews



There are, of course, exceptions for those members of a family who are especially sunny, gloomy, nice, nasty, hard-working, indolent, temperate, drunken, etc. But my money is on a model in which sibling relationships are the most fraught of any.

You may have noticed the absence of in-laws from my model. I am loath to generalize about them. In my own case, I have a highly esteemed daughter-in-law. But it is easy to imagine cases in which many of one’s in-laws are at or near the bottom of the list.

Happy Monday.