In regards to the language wars

So a woman is applying for a writing job, and we ask her for additional samples. She sends an email that begins:

In regards to your request . . .

I wanted to pound my head against my monitor.  She’s a graduate of an Ivy League university, with years of experience in the writing biz.  But she never got the memo that in regards to is nonstandard.  Of course, plenty of other people haven’t gotten the memo. The usage started taking off around 1990; it’s still in the statistical noise compared to in regard to, but maybe that’s in the process of changing.

Language changes.  People who get too far out in front of the changes may sound illiterate; people who don’t keep up with the changes may sound like pedants.  At work we have our own style guide, where we have to make judgments about this sort of thing.  We certainly wouldn’t allow in regards to, but we’d probably deprecate in regard to as sounding too stuffy and prolix; why not just say concerning or about?  Every company I’ve worked for has preferred data is to data are, in spite of the grammarians’ insistence that data is the plural of datum.  Data are still wins the Ngram Viewer war, but the trend is clearly in favor of data is.

Anyway, what are we to make of The Language Wars, which is clearly on the descriptivist side of the prescriptivist/descriptivist divide?  The New Yorker writer slams the book, but I have a hard time following her argument.  At times, she seems to have read a different book from the one I read.  She says, for example, that Hitchings deplores Modern English Usage, but he does nothing of the sort.  Here is his nuanced judgment:

But while some parts of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage possess an air of both Oxonian grandeur and sub-molecular pedantry, others manifest a striking reasonableness.  He is much more flexible in his thinking than many of his admirers have seemed to imagine…. Many would demur, but Fowler enjoyable comments that ‘good writing is surely difficult enough without the forbidding of things that historical grammar, & present intelligibility, & obvious convenience on their side, & lack only–starch.’

He also quotes at length from Fowler’s wonderful discussion of split infinitives. His judgment of Strunk & White seems equally apt.

My judgment of Hitchings: his book gives a useful historical perspective on usage debates, and his opinions seem reasonable (although see my strongly worded dissent here).  My problem with the book is that it was often too detailed for my taste, or talked about stuff I already knew; so I ended up skimming a lot.

Hitchings is a descriptivist, in the reductive sense that he is describing something.  But theNew Yorkerwriter accuses him of some kind of hypocrisy because he knows and uses the rules he describes:

Having written chapter after chapter attacking the rules, he decides, at the end, that maybe he doesn’t mind them after all: “There are rules, which are really mental mechanisms that carry out operations to combine words into meaningful arrangements.” We should learn them. He has. He thinks that the “who”/“whom” distinction may be on its way out. Funny, how we never see any confusion over these pronouns in his book, which is written in largely impeccable English.

Why is this “funny”?  The rules of English usage are historically contingent; many of them will disappear over time, and new rules will take their place.  But that hardly means that a professional writer can ignore the current state of play.
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3 thoughts on “In regards to the language wars

  1. Pingback: Can you use a politically incorrect word if people are stupid for thinking it’s politically incorrect? | richard bowker

  2. Pingback: Henry Hitchings gifts us with a fun read | richard bowker

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