The list the title alludes to could go on. For instance, just last week I had a dream that started out oh-so-promising, a trip to Conneaut Lake, that snow-covered iced-over wonderland. But as it turned out, it was just the setting for a debate as to whether I should use credit cards cleverly and extensively so as to increase my credit score or continue to thumb my nose at credit cards for most purchases because I don’t believe in the system. This sort of came out of nowhere, but I bet I’ll be thinking a lot about it the next few nights. This saddens me, because it is not interesting.
But the good news is that there are better things to concern myself with while I try to convince my brain that it’s time to rest. I’ve read two excellent posts in the last week that will also keep me up thinking, and that’s great because they’re far more interesting than the tortuous calculations of credit scores that would otherwise fill my brain. I’d originally planned to discuss both of them in this post, but I found I had more thoughts about them than I had anticipated, so I’ve split this post in twain.
The first post, which addresses the essential point to this blog, is from Jonathon at Arrant Pedantry. It succinctly summarizes the great battle between prescriptivists (boo!) and descriptivists (yay?). More importantly, he asks the essential questions that both sides attempt to ignore because they don’t submit to obvious answers. For instance, it’s obvious that language users benefit from the observance of some conventions in the language — even the most dyed-in-the-wool descriptivist will admit to this. If we permitted free word order in English, the language just wouldn’t work; we wouldn’t know who to mourn if someone said “Barry Terry killed”, for instance. But how many conventions does a language need? How do we identify beneficial conventions? And, to the point of this blog, when descriptivists say a language is one way and prescriptivists argue it should be another, how can we adjudicate between them? I think these questions are the ones that anyone who claims to be concerned about language needs to keep in mind, and it’s nice to have them clearly stated.
The key question that arises for me is: when is it useful to intercede on language’s behalf? I really don’t know myself — there are some situations where it is probably good (I’m thinking, for instance, of apostrophication) and there are some situations where it is probably bad (for instance, pretty much anything James Cochrane wrote about in his book). But what are the general underlying principles that differentiate useful and useless rules? My first guess was that a useful intercession is one that preserves an important distinction in the language. For instance, grocer’s and grocers’ pick out two different concepts; the former is singular and the latter is plural. However, the distinction between singular and plural is hardly inviolate in English — deer, fish, you, etc. are the same in singular and plural. Is it really a problem, then, if we lose a distinction between singular and plural in possessives? (*See below for my opinion.) My naive proposal has just pushed the question further down; instead of asking what is a good rule to impose, the question becomes what distinctions are important to retain, and the answer to that is still more muddled.
My thoughts on the matter are that this is not a question with a unique best answer. However, it’s one that every author (myself included) needs to try to answer before making their commentaries about what is and isn’t good English, and need to revise while making the commentaries. I’d love to hear your answers, especially since I imagine a lot of you readers have less stringent beliefs about what makes a rule useful than I do.
* My answer is that despite the presence of zero-morpheme plurals in English (e.g., one deer, two deer), users of the language exhibit a desire to maintain a clear singular/plural distinction. Educated adults (e.g., me) often say things like I saw two deers in the road or I’m pretty sure this squirrel is of a different specie than that one. The nouns that don’t have a clear singular/plural distinction are rare, often old or borrowed, and are highly susceptible to regularization. Even the pronoun you has a cornucopia of colloquial plural forms, such as y’all, yinz/yunz, you’uns, you all, and yous/youze. So I would be unwilling to say that English speakers are willing to tolerate a lack of singular/plural distinction. Despite this, speakers of other languages get along fine without a singular/plural distinction (Chinese, for instance), so it isn’t the case that losing a singular/plural distinction in English is insurmountable.