(Description, Prescription, and WTF Awards)

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March 18, 2021 by libroshombre

            The differences between the Biden administration and Trump’s are manifold, but among the more glaring is their approach to language.  “The Words That Are In and Out With the Biden Administration,” an interesting NYTimes.com article by Michael Shear, said that Biden is reversing much of the terminology introduced by Trump’s team, and “rebranding the government” by “stripping away the language and imagery that represented his anti-immigration, anti-science, and anti-gay rights policies and replacing them with words and pictures that are more inclusive and better match the current president’s sensibilities.”   For example, “non-citizen” is replacing Stephen Miller’s required insertion of the more pejorative “illegal alien” into all governmental communications, the phrase “climate change” is being re-introduced, and Native American groups are referred to as “Tribal peoples” with a capital “T.”  It doesn’t end there by any means; the Bureau of Land Management just restored “sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of America’s public lands” to their mission statement.  And many more such revisions are underway.

            It reminds me of an old librarians’ debate: should dictionaries describe their language or prescribe it?  The Merriam-Webster Dictionary is descriptive “in that it aims to describe and indicate how words are actually used by English speakers and writers. Generally, the descriptive approach to lexicography does not dictate how words should be used or set forth rules of ‘correctness,’ unlike the prescriptive approach.”  In the 1960’s, when the “big, fat” Webster’s Unabridged 3rd edition replaced the prescriptive Webster’s 2nd edition, it “came under attack for its ‘permissiveness’ and its failure to tell people what proper English was. It was the opening shot in the culture wars, as conservatives detected yet another symbol of the permissiveness of society as a whole and the decline of authority, as represented by the Second Edition.”  It was a big deal back then, with New Yorker columnist Dwight Macdonald, one of the most prominent critics of the 3rd edition, accusing Webster’s of having “untuned the string, made a sop of the solid structure of English.”  Despite Macdonald’s protestations, today practically all English dictionaries are descriptive.

            Our language didn’t begin firming up grammatically until printers arrived in England in the latter 1400s, but prescribing “proper” grammar didn’t catch fire until the 1700s when an Anglican bishop, Robert Lowth, published “A Short Introduction to English Grammar” in 1762 which was based on Latin rules.  However, in “The Bishop’s Grammar,” author Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade maintained that Lowth “never intended to write a prescriptive grammar; rather, he wrote the book for his son who was about to enter school and start a formal study of Latin. Lowth thought that by describing the rules of English, he would give his son a foundation for learning Latin grammar. It was natural that the grammar was written using Latin terminology and parts of speech, as this was the only model available at the time. Lowth’s publisher then promoted and marketed the book, causing it to become enormously popular … One main reason for the grammar’s success was that people who were climbing the socio-economic ladder during the Industrial Revolution put great value on speaking ‘correct’ and ‘polite’ English, thereby distinguishing themselves from the lower classes.”  That’s how ill-fitting and unnecessary Latin-based rules, such as “don’t end sentences with prepositions,” got ingrained.

            Prescription really caught fire when the American Quaker lawyer and grammarian Lindley Murray (born in 1745) moved to England after spending the Revolutionary War years on Long Island “fishing, sailing, and shooting” and later growing wealthy litigating in New York City.  Murray moved to England for his health after developing Post-Polio syndrome in 1784, and there he created a renowned personal library.   Upon learning there were no English lesson books at a nearby Quaker school for girls, he wrote and published “English Grammar” in 1795, which adhered to Lowth’s Latin framework and became “the best-selling English grammar book of all time,” according to Lyda Fens-De Zeeuw’s “The HUGE Presence of Lindley Murray.”   Murray was “the most enormously influential” and “was also the most popular grammarian of the late 18th and perhaps the entire 19th century, and this is most clearly reflected in the way in which a wide range of 19th- and even some 20th-century literary authors, from both sides of the Atlantic, mentioned Lindley Murray in their novels,”  including  Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,”  Dickens’ “Nicholas Nickleby” and “The Old Curiosity Shop,” and James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” Edgar Allen Poe “grew up with Murray’s textbooks and used his writings as a kind of linguistic touchstone.”

            Though firmly favoring the descriptive approach, I think the modern onslaught of professional jargon deserves some prescription.  Uri Berliner’s “Forgive Me, For I Have Sinned … Against the English Language” cites a recent study from USC’s Marshall School of Business that found that “the use of jargon is often tied to where people stand in a social hierarchy … People with less prestige in an organization are more likely to use buzzwords” since “the lower status people are much more concerned about how they’ll be evaluated by their audience.”  A distinction’s made between “the hybrid of business school lingo and Silicon Valley hype” (which “is littered with ‘BS’ words – like ‘orientate’ or ‘guesstimate’ or ‘omnichannel’”) and useful in-house jargon used by workers in medicine, law, and science (and, I’d add, librarians). 

            Americans deserve a government that communicates openly, understandably and informatively; that’s why our country should once again follow the Plain Writing Act of 2010 that “requires that federal agencies use clear governmental communication that the public can understand and use.”  It’s overseen by The Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN), “a community of federal employees dedicated to the idea that citizens deserve clear communications from their government [who] believe that using plain language saves federal agencies time and money and provides better service to the American public.”  Drawn from a variety of federal departments, this team reviews government publications and develops guidelines for clear communication so citizens can “find what they need, understand what they find, and use what they find to meet their needs.”

            The guidelines are common sense topics like “write for your audience,” “organize your material,” “avoid acronyms,” and “be concise.”  Under “keep it simple” they offer subtopics: “use the active voice,” “use the present tense,” “don’t use slashes,” etc.  When government agencies run afoul of PLAIN’s directives, they risk receiving the dread WTF (“Work That Failed”) Award.  For example, a recent awardee’s press release said, “NNSA’s MSIPP manager traveled back to KCNS and NETL to see the benefit of the program on its participants.”

            A free people must be able to understand what their government is doing.  After all, on March 4th we all just celebrated National Grammar Day, didn’t we?         

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