October 04, 2005

Prescriptivism and national security

Another home run from Rob Balder at Partially Clips:

I once had a good friend who waged a long, tireless but lonely and fruitless campaign to persuade a major American corporation to enforce certain rules of hyphenation in all of its documents. His idea was that any left branching in complex nominals must be signaled by a hyphen within the constituent. Taking a few examples from this morning's papers, this would mandate not just two-bedroom house and hurricane-related damage, but also Supreme-Court choice, real-estate firm, Open-Content Alliance and so on. He was passionately convinced that his proposal was much more logical than any of the standard stylistic rules on the subject, which he argued were so complex and exception-ridden that no one could follow them in practice.

I gather that my friend formed his general rule as a misunderstanding of what he was taught in school. He was indignant to find that allegedly well-edited sources got this wrong all the time, and then felt betrayed and outraged when he discovered that they felt no remorse at this systematic violation of elementary rationality. After all, without some orthographic code for signaling the structure of these complex nominals, what else could a reader rely on?

Someday, someone will explain to me why private theories about the logic of language so often turn into public crusades of moral awakening. Perhaps it reduces to the previously-unsolved problem of why some people commit themselves so emotionally to other projects of rationalizing ethical norms with respect to a revealed system.

Meanwhile total-space-nut-hyphen-basket might be a useful term of art, despite being a little long. I'll try it in a couple of other posts, and see how it works.

Posted by Mark Liberman at October 4, 2005 12:20 PM