My New York Times posts have stirred the ire of certain linguists and reminded me of how journalists and academics can often seem as much at odds as Democrats and Republicans in Congress. (I could have used a little less condescension in the comments after the post on “Make or Break Verbs,” especially since a linguist on a blog misread one line, but—oh well.)
In an essay called “The English Wars,” in the May 14 New Yorker, Joan Acocella summed up the epic prescriptivist-descriptivist debate by focusing on the two manuals that the linguists love to hate: H.W. Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926), and William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White’s The Elements of Style (1918, recast in 1959). Prescriptivists can be justly accused of nit-picking, but often their main goal is clarity. I call that a pretty good goal. Most writers need some rules. On the other hand, the rules a few dudes made a hundred years ago can get in the way of writing that lives and breathes with the rest of us. I get a kick out of slang terms like “toe social,” at which men choose their dates by their piggies alone!
If you’d like to read other essays by writers as smart and sophisticated as Acocella, I happen to collect them. Back in 2001, Louis Menand wrote about Fowler himself for The New Yorker, in an essay titled “Slips of the Tongue: Before there was Fowler’s, there was Fowler.”
And earlier, closer to Oxford University Press’s publication of The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage (by H. W. Fowler, edited by R. W. Burchfield), lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower wrote “Elegant Variation and All That” for The Atlantic while Patricia O’Conner (author of Woe Is I), wrote “Running Afoul of Fowler” for The New York Times.
All this reading should satisfy the grammar geek in you!