The Right and Wrong of Writing
Who or what determines what is correct form in writing, and what is incorrect? Many nations have an official body that regulates the national language to protect it from extinction or at least from degradation. (France’s Academie Francaise, in particular, seems to exist primarily to prevent pollution of the French language by importation of English words — let me know how that works out, mes amis). This paternal protection, however, does not extend to grammar and punctuation and the like.
The United States is not among those countries with prose police, but our library and bookstore shelves groan with dictionaries and grammar, usage, and style manuals as well as handbooks that guide us in our use of punctuation — and the Internet abounds with more of the same. These resources are not necessarily engrossing reading (unless you’re a word nerd), but they are exemplary models in practicing what they preach, and they are likely to be much more reader-friendly than the dread-inducing language arts textbooks of our schooldays.
Why, then, has the quality of writing declined so dramatically that we might benefit from an English Academy — one devoted not to language purity (which words we use, and which ones we don’t) but to monitoring the written form of that language?
The democratization of publishing is primarily responsible, I think. Because, thanks to the dramatic increase in options for businesses and organizations to disseminate information by way of text online and in print, and because of the ease of self-publishing the same media affords anyone with access to them, more and more people who don’t pay attention to such details are writing and being read, which of course exposes so many more people to the errors.
Thus, erroneous usage — not just in hyphenation, punctuation, spelling, and other mechanical mistakes but also in infelicities of grammar, syntax, usage, and other more substantial elements of writing — is multiplied virally because of the shift in the signal-to-noise ration: Fewer people are reading rigorously written and edited prose, and more people are reading writing crafted with less care. This, I believe, is the culprit in the decline of quality in published writing I’ve observed over the years both as an editor and as someone who takes a busman’s holiday every time I read for information or pleasure.
The reason for the decrease in consumption of meticulously produced content is twofold. Fewer people actively seek good writing. But equally culpable are the publishing industries, the erstwhile guardians of good writing, which compromise the quality of periodicals and other publications because they discourage labor-intensive practices necessary for producing high-quality writing, practices inimical to lean-business strategies that result in high profits.
This issue brings up a question I’m surprised people don’t ask more often: In the realm of writing, if so many people do something seen as wrong or nonstandard, doesn’t that make it right? After all, that’s how new laws are written and how societal mores changes. And that’s how language changes. So, if the majority of writers write, “You and me” at the head of a sentence instead of “you and I” (or reverse their preferences when the phrase is the object of a sentence), why is the former usage considered incorrect and the latter one deemed the acceptable way? The majority seems to beg to differ.
Because language doesn’t turn on a dime. For sanity to prevail, there must be a period of time between shifts in rules of usage and punctuation and other elements of writing in which we respond to “Everybody else does it” the way a parent would react to that type of justification uttered by a willful teenager: “Well, if everybody else went and jumped off a cliff, would you?” By the same token, we need to scold writers by saying, “Well, if everybody uses comma splices, does that mean you should, too?”
At the risk of seeming like a strict parent, that’s why I’m going to defend my rigor by saying that popular usage is not a standard. It is not a guidebook. And I will follow my own counsel: I will adhere to the rules (unless I have an indefensible reason to break one now and then), and I will exhort others to do the same.
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