This brings me to an interesting essay by Steven Pinker in Slate about the latest prescriptivist/descriptivist controversy. I’m a big Pinker fan, and I think he gets it right:
The thoughtful, nondichotomous position on language depends on a simple insight: Rules of proper usage are tacit conventions. Conventions are unstated agreements within a community to abide by a single way of doing things—not because there is any inherent advantage to the choice, but because there is an advantage to everyone making the same choice. Standardized weights and measures, electrical voltages and cables, computer file formats, the Gregorian calendar, and paper currency are familiar examples.
Once you understand that prescriptive rules are conventions, most of the iptivist controversies evaporate. One such controversy springs from the commonplace among linguists that most nonstandard forms are in no way lazy, illogical, or inferior. The choice of isn’t over ain’t, dragged over drug, and can’t get any over can’t get no did not emerge from a weighing of their inherent merits, but from the historical accident that the first member of each pair was used in the dialect spoken around London when the written language became standardized. If history had unfolded differently, today’s correct forms could have been incorrect and vice-versa.
But the valid observation that there is nothing inherently wrong with ain’t should not be confused with the invalid inference that ain’t is one of the conventions of standard English. Dichotomizers have difficulty grasping this point, so I’ll repeat it with an analogy. In the United Kingdom, everyone drives on the left, and there is nothing sinister, gauche, or socialist about their choice. Nonetheless there is an excellent reason to encourage a person in the United States to drive on the right: That’s the way it’s done around here.
(My cold-eyed editors would probably remove that hyphen from vice-versa, but we’ll let that pass.)
There is a bit of historical illogic in using “due to” as a prepositional phrase instead of an adjectival phrase, but it’s completely comprehensible to any reader of English. So why should we care if it’s used as a preposition, equivalent to “because of”? In general, we shouldn’t. But if you’re a writer, maybe you should, because there will be a part of your audience who will think the less of you if you use “due to” in this way. And you’re probably not good enough a writer to not care about annoying those people.
Bryan Garner, the author of Modern American Usage, has coined the term die-hard snoots to refer to the pedantic folks who care about these lost causes. Here the Columbia Journalism Review talks about the die-hard snootiness of opposition to the prepositional “due to.”
At work recently we discussed whether we should prohibit the prepositional “due to.” We decided that we should. Ordinary schlubs won’t care if we use “because of” instead of “due to,” but die-hard snoots will. And we want die-hard snoots to like us as much as ordinary schlubs; so why not make them happy?
I’ve started reading a book called The Language Wars that Pinker mentions in his essay. I’ll let you know who wins.