Work in the Precarious Economy   /   Spring 2016   /    Signifiers


Wilfred M. McClay

Universal Composition, 1937, Joaquín Torres-García (1874–1949); photograph: Philippe Migeat; Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France; © CNAC/MNAM/Dist. RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, NY; © copyright Alejandra, Aurelio, and Claudio Torres 2017.

It would be absurd, not to say futile, to argue that languages and words should never change. But…

I rise to embrace that most unpopular of causes: linguistic prescriptivism. Unpopular in every sense, for it asserts that the vox populi should not be the ultimate authority to which every knee should bow and every tongue confess in matters of diction and grammar. Instead, it takes the unfashionable view that standards of usage exist, and exist to be observed and enforced, not merely for propriety’s sake but for the sake of elegance, precision, and clarity. Stubborn blue-nosed grammarian types, such as your average heroic copyeditor, rise each morning, put on their armor, buckle their scabbards, and sally forth into a relentless and often losing battle to defend the ramparts of civilization, policing the distinction between that and which, or between and among, or shall and will, and a great many other such problem spots. They are always busy, for the legions of mischief are almost as extensive as language itself. The ever-proliferating confusions related to pronoun gender and number—“If a criminal is sufficiently versatile, can they do the work of two?”—are almost as bewildering as the general societal confusion they signify. Which of course is just what language is supposed to do, in the view of the anti-prescriptivists: Language is to be a mirror rather than a lamp, to invoke M.H. Abrams’s classic distinction between literature that merely reflects the world and literature that seeks to illuminate it. Language in this understanding is life’s obedient servant rather than its guide and preceptor.

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