The Writer’s Toolbox – Grammar Police

You might be an editor if at least five people posted Weird Al Yankovic’s “Word Crimes” music video on your Facebook page.

You might be an editor if it made you laugh and cringe all at once.

You might be an editor if the silly satire stayed with you for weeks.

Word Crimes
If you haven’t yet watched the video, do so. It’s a clever parody of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” and it takes on grammar snafus, text-speak, and usage errors. It’s at once funny and offensive in the style of South Park, and most people take it for what it is: satire.

I did. And then I thought about it some more.

Describe or Prescribe?
Among editors, educators, and linguists, there are two major schools of thought: descriptivism and prescriptivism. Each looks at language and usage in different ways.

Descriptivists, like the name implies, believe that language is in a state of flux, and that rather than insisting that people follow “correct” grammar and usage, we should fit grammar and usage to the way language is already used. In other words, grammatical and usage rules should describe the current state of language. While descriptivists don’t necessarily advocate tossing the dictionary out the window, they also feel that dictionaries and guides need to keep up with common usage to stay current and relevant.

On the other end of the spectrum are prescriptivists, who believe that there is a body of rules that language use should adhere to. They feel that grammatical rules should inform how we speak and write, not the other way around; in fact, without rules, language may become inefficient, inelegant, sloppy, and confusing.

Language Changes, But …
Both philosophies have merits, and the debates can get quite heated. But while linguists argue about descriptivism vs. prescriptivism, the rest of us are left with another question: how does this affect our own writing? Do we ignore the standards, or do we rigidly stick to the rules?

From a practical point of view, It’s probably best to follow a middle road on this. Language is about communication, and consistency and standards in communication?even if standards gradually evolve?minimize the chance your reader will be confused. This will also help keep your message from being lost amid distracting non-standard usage (not to mention tossed aside because of an unconventional or unfamiliar style).

On the other hand, having an open mind will keep your writing fresh and flowing. For example, the rule forbidding ending a sentence with a preposition is generally considered obsolete, and trying to accommodate this rule usually results in stiff, wordy sentences.

So watch Word Crimes, and then give it a little more thought. What does it say about how we use and absorb language? How has language changed, and is that a good thing?or not? Prescriptivism? Descriptivism? Where do you fall on the spectrum?

Christina M. Frey is a book editor, literary coach, and lover of great writing. For more tips and techniques for your toolbox, follow her on Twitter (@turntopage2) or visit her blog.