The Rules of Engagement in English
In the same day, this site received, among readers’ responses to my recent post Courtesy Titles and Honorifics, two diverse email messages: One was a reasonable, well-written support of the writer’s opinion that, as she was taught, because the courtesy title Ms. is an artificial designation that doesn’t abbreviate anything, it should not include a period. The other correspondent wrote, “hey watch out your website looks like a rule book, and we all know rule books are fascist.”
Whether one’s convictions are adept or absurd, however, one must accept the incontrovertible fact that although one is free to write in any style or manner one chooses, this choice has consequences.
Linguistic anarchy is inimical to language, by virtue of the fact that language, as a form of communication, is essential to family, to society, to civilization. Just as abiding by rules of personal and community conduct (the latter extending in scope from the smallest village to the United Nations) helps protect the fragile coexistence of humans, adhering to guidelines for language use enable at least sizeable blocs of humanity to agree on common signals for cooperation (or conflict).
Language evolves, constantly and relentlessly, but precepts and attitudes about it prevail for a time before they slowly respond to changes in usage. Therefore, for example, though one of the correspondents I referred to above is correct that the period following Ms. is not logically justified — and that for that reason, early in the term’s life span, many writers omitted the punctuation — it is now standard, for the sake of consistency, to treat Ms. the same as Mr. and Mrs. One’s gender and gender politics are irrelevant: Those are the facts, ma’am — er, ms.
Do you write simply for pleasure, or to share your thoughts and ideas with a small coterie of readers? Do you self-publish, whether in print or online? Knock yourself out — you are hereby granted a dispensation to write in any fashion that pleases you and anyone who chooses to read your work. You are akin to a homesteader or a survivalist, staking out your own terrain on your own terms — and accepting the terms that go with those terms.
But if your intent is to identify yourself as a professional writer — or if your employment status is predicated on the fact that your writing is intelligible to your colleagues and perhaps even consistent with distributed guidelines — certain standards apply, and your ability to adhere to those standards is inextricably linked to your professional success or survival. If that’s fascist, then I proudly represent the New World Order.
I don’t mean to get all serious on you. I respect the point about the unpunctuated Ms., and for all I know, the comment about the “rule book” may be a goof. But both comments inspire this tip: When it comes to composition, let your unfettered freak flag fly. But if you submit the flag to be unfurled atop a highly visible flagpole, expect it to be redesigned to suit that flagpole — or to be refolded and respectfully returned for you to do with what you wish.
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