In case you missed it, yesterday's spirited debate about the U's style guide (or, rather, the recent suspension and current lack thereof) was about the best thing I've seen come through the esteemed Forum listserv. For others, it was probably boring and totally irrelevant.
We heard such gems and various arguments as
"Why maintain a separate manual if publishers produce industry-standard ones like Chicago or AP?
"I would think that if we all use the same PMS for our maroons and golds, we should certainly be united in whether or not we serial comma and at what point we switch to numbers instead of text.
"To abandon a standard is, to me, tantamount to saying we can spell words any way we want
It's a debate that's been had by the finest minds of the millennium, and really, since the beginning of language.
No one captures that debate in totality better than David Foster Wallace, in his 2001 essay for Harper's Magazine
, "Democracy, English, and the Wars over Usage
." This later appeared in his book of essays, Consider the lobster
--hence the title of this post. It's 50+ pages of mind-blowing philosophy on language, and it's totally interesting and readable. The genius who wrote Infinite Jest
could probably tell tales of melting butter in a way that would leave your mouth watering and mind numb, but this essay is apropos to the listserv tug-o-war.
Wallace begins, "Did you know that probing the seamy underbelly of U.S. lexicography reveals ideological strife and controversy and intrigue and nastiness and fervor on a nearly hanging-chad scale? For instance, did you know that some modern dictionaries are notoriously liberal and others notoriously conservative, and that certain conservative dictionaries were actually conceived and designed as corrective responses to the "corruption" and "permissiveness" of certain liberal dictionaries?"
Wallace goes on to divide the groups, as is our American way, into two competitive factions: the Prescriptivists vs. the Descriptivists. He defines Descriptivists using the colloquial term, SNOOT (and not derogatorily, for in the end he is more a SNOOT than not), defined by Wallace as "somebody who knows what dysphemism means and doesn't mind letting you know it."Officially, the definitions are thus
1. Descriptive grammar: the systematic study and description of a language. Descriptive grammar refers to the structure of a language as it is actually used by speakers and writers.
2. Prescriptive grammar: a set of rules and examples dealing with the syntax and word structures of a language, usually intended as an aid to the learning of that language. Prescriptive grammar refers to the structure of a language as certain people think it should be used.From About.com
: Both kinds of grammar are concerned with rules--but in different ways. Specialists in descriptive grammar (linguists) study the rules or patterns that underlie our use of words, phrases, clauses, and sentences. On the other hand, prescriptive grammarians (such as most editors and teachers) lay out rules about what they believe to be the "correct" or "incorrect" use of language.
Officially, there is no longer any particular writing style that is required use for University communications. These are the only requirements specific to the U
. Colleges and units are free to choose a style (AP/Chicago) that is appropriate for their project. So, where do you fall on the battleground, amidst the blood of words and the screams of lobsters?