March 04, 2007

Foolish hobgoblins

In response to my recent posting on spelling rage, in which differences between American and Canadian spelling figured prominently, Stephen Jones writes to propose that we should "accept both the British and American forms indiscriminately".  I think this is an excellent idea, but it's unlikely to gain wide support, since it's going to look to a lot of people like advocating INCONSISTENCY, and consistency is widely believed to be a good thing in itself.

As a linguist, I have to point out that inconsistency is just another name for variability, and variability is not some pesky defect of languages, but a central feature of them (along with, at least, opposition, compositionality, redundancy, ambiguity, synonymy/paraphrase, and hierarchical structure -- plus, of course, shared norms).  Language (both spoken and written) varies from person to person, from social group to social group, from occasion to occasion, and even for a single person on a single occasion, from moment to moment.  And this is a very good thing.  It would be insane to try to enforce a single choice between variants, on all occasions, for everyone.

So the question is: when is regulation (in favor of consistency) appropriate, and when should variability flourish?  This is far too big a question for me to answer here, but I will talk about some cases -- mostly from the mechanics of written English -- where it seems to me a case can be made for letting people do whatever they feel like doing at the moment.  You could always choose one variant, or always choose another (in either case recognizing that other people make different choices, and that's ok), or choose between them in some systematic way, or choose between them at your whim (in which case there might be a system in some of your choices, but not one that you're aware of -- and some of your choices will be made at random).

This last possibility -- true free variation within an individual -- certainly occurs.  The production of segments in speech shows a good bit of variation, even for a single speaker, even within a single word.  My /o/ (as in rose and coat and no) ranges over a considerable territory phonetically.  Some of this variation is in fact conditioned by the phonetic context, and some of it has to do with factors like speed of speech, emphasis, accommodation to (or distancing from) other people's speech, and so on.  But there remains a good bit of variation that has no apparent conditioning.

Similarly in writing.  I write the capital letter A sometimes in its cursive form, sometimes in its printed form.  Both variants can occur within a single sentence, and I don't even write my first name the same way every time (though I stick to the cursive form for official signatures).  Mostly I have no idea why I've chosen one of these variants.  So far as I know, no one has ever had a problem with this; in fact, so far as I know, no one has even noticed the variation.  I have no plans to reform my handwriting practice so as to be consistent in my As.

Now, back to British and American spelling.  Jones is proudly defiant:

When I set work for my Saudi students, or even when I write an internal memo to staff, I deliberately mix the spellings; I'll write 'color' one minute and 'colour' the next. A plague on both your purities!

He's opted here for true free variation.  The options he's rejected include three versions of the injunction to Be Consistent:

Strict Global Consistency: always choose one particular variant.  That means everybody.

Strict Local Consistency:

By Group: Everyone in some group must use just one variant, consistently, but different groups (say, Canadians and Americans) are allowed different choices.

By Individual: Each person must use just one variant, consistently, but different people are allowed different choices.

By Context: choose variants systematically, by context; but be consistent in your choices.  (Say, use British or American spellings exclusively, according to the practice of the person you're writing to; use quot-punc order, with periods and commas inside quotation marks only if they were in the quoted material, if you're writing for Language, but punc-quot order if you're writing for Oxford University Press.)  Consistency by Context can, of course, be recommended for everyone, for groups, or for individuals.

Consistency with Variances: always choose X unless you can defend Y in specific circumstances.  (Often recommended by the usage manuals.  For instance: Avoid Passive in general, unless you can argue that there's a good reason for it in this specific case; always use restrictive relative that, unless you can defend the choice of which in particular circumstances.)

I go into such detail here mostly to highlight Strict Local Consistency by Individual, a recommendation I find baffling.  Here's an instance reported by Jones in his e-mail to me:

About thirty years ago the London examination board, responsible for O and A level exams, announced that students could use American spelling but would have to use it consistently. This is idiotic.

No American student will be taking a British examination unless he has spent part of his time in the British education system and thus got his spelling mixed up between the two varieties.

What's important here is that these students deal on a regular basis with two slightly different sets of practices and are likely to have trouble differentiating them; in reading, they are likely to treat the variants as equivalent (a point I'll return to below), and that view might well carry over into their writing.  I can understand, up to a point, that British examiners might want to insist that people in the U.K. do as the British do -- Strict Local Consistency by Group and Context -- though I don't fully understand why they should care so much about minutiae of spelling that are known to vary in the English-speaking world, to the point of treating non-local variants as errors to count against exam-takers.  But requiring Strict Local Consistency by Individual -- do graders actually search through essays to check consistency? -- strikes me as a foolish insistence on consistency for its own sake.

I replied with a story of my own:

I've had dealings with an editor at a major academic press who will, if pressed very hard, allow an author to use restrictive relative which -- but only if they use it CONSISTENTLY, and never use restrictive that.  This is lunacy.

Or, in other terms, a foolish consistency.  Of course, what people who object to Fowler's Rule are asking for is not the right to use which as THE restrictive relativizer -- that would be silly, because there are syntactic contexts in which which is decidedly inferior to that, to the point of being sometimes unacceptable -- but the right to have BOTH which and that available to them.  (I'm even prepared to argue that the two relativizers are subtly different in meaning, a difference related to the fact that relativizer that is a complementizer and relativizer which a (definite and anaphoric) pronoun.)

On to further cases in the mechanics of written English.  The treatment of the two parts of compound words, for instance: written solid, hyphenated, or separated by a space?  Many are fixed, but others show variation, and I can't see why people should insist that only one version be allowed.  I myself sometimes write diningroom table, sometimes dining-room table, sometimes dining room table (although it's always, I think, dining room on its own), and I can't see the point in fixing on one of these versions to the exclusion of the others. 

I use OK as, I think, the only spelling of this word, but I don't care whether other people spell it ok or O.K. or o.k. or okay or sometimes one of these and sometimes another.  (Oh dear, I now discover that I in fact use ok sometimes -- not really a surprise in someone who's generally sparing with upper case.  See above.)  Why should anyone care?

Now, a few words on apostrophes.  Mark Liberman has already explored this territory, in a posting that takes up Jonathan Starble's considering (in the Legal Times)

the deep divide that exists among the nation's intellectual elite regarding one of society's most troubling issues -- namely, whether the possessive form of a singular noun ending with the letter s requires an additional s after the apostrophe.

and goes on to examine the practice of Justice Antonin Scalia in this regard, which is variable (Kansas's, Ramos's, witness's; but Stevens', Adams', Tibbs'), and his own, concluding, puckishly:

On this question, I agree with Associate Justice Scalia. At least, I'm rarely certain what the spelling should be in such cases, and so I add s or not, as the spirit moves me. If this is the thin edge of the moral-relativist wedge, so be it -- Antonin and I stand together, behind the right to follow the dictates of conscience in each individual s+possessive circumstance.

I'm astonished that Mark was not besieged by people screaming THERE OUGHT TO BE A RULE.  Mark is, after all, advocating punctuation by whim: "as the spirit moves me".  He even throws out a mischievous reference to "the thin edge of the moral-relativist wedge", alluding to the many people who believe that making linguistic choices is a moral issue, so that tolerating (or, worse, advocating) variability is moral relativism of the most deplorable sort.

This is one of many cases where each of the variants has something going for it: the s variant represents (most people's)  pronunciation clearly; but the zero variant is shorter and more pleasing to the eye (or at least to the eyes of people who find s's ugly), and conforms to the punctuation of possessive plurals (where, however, no possessive s is pronounced).  Either practice makes sense.  Either is defensible.  As a result, some people do it one way, and some people do it the other way, and even if there weren't people like Mark, who vary from occasion to occasion, everybody (no matter what they do in practice) will be acquainted with both versions.  So we all cope with both variants, and consequently treat them as equivalent.  If there weren't authorities claiming that one system or the other is God's Truth, probably no one would notice the variation or care about it.

It turns out that the Chicago Manual of Style (15th ed., pp. 283-4) does supply a rule.  Well, it supplies two: one for the s variant, with a number of subclauses; and one for the zero variant, concluding:

Those uncomfortable with the rules, exceptions, and options outlined above [for the s variant] may prefer the system, formerly more common, of simply omitting the possessive s on all words ending in s...

Though easy to apply, that usage disregards pronunciation and thus seems unnatural to many.

No doubt this flexibility in the CMS offends the grammatical moralists (though it isn't grammar that's at issue here).  I would be cheering it, except for the fact that CMS is not recommending Do As You Will, it's telling you to choose one system or the other and stick to it.  It's advocating Strict Consistency by Individual, presumably because the authors believe in consistency for its own sake.

A few more cases.  Not long ago I touched on another burning issue in punctuation, whether or not to use the serial comma in coordination: Patty, Maxine, and LaVerne or Patty, Maxine and LaVerne.  Again, each variant has something (small) going for it -- the serial variant is clearer in some contexts, the non-serial variant saves a character -- but everybody is used to seeing both variants, and probably only people who have been made sensitive to the issue notice the variation, so it seems pointless to invest a lot of energy in enforcing one variant over the other.  Yet editors and publishers insist on Strict Consistency by Context: you write for one publication, you must always use the serial comma; you write for another, you must never use it.

Then there's quot-punc vs. punc-quot order, mentioned above.  Again, each variant has something (small) going for it -- quot-punc makes more sense (things inside quotation marks should belong to the quoted material), but punc-quot has a long tradition (having to do with typesetters' preferences, I believe) in its favor -- but everybody is used to seeing both variants, etc. (as above).  Yet once again editors and publishers insist on Strict Consistency by Context.

In fact, in many quarters quot-punc is viewed as a vulgar error, an especially egregious mistake.  Joanne Feierman's Action Grammar: Fast, No-Hassle Answers on Everday Usage and Punctuation (1995) features a list of ten "mistakes your boss minds most", five from speech and five from writing (the ones she says were most often mentioned in her interviews with executives).  Sally Thomason, who's posted here about useful prescriptivism, will probably find this list disheartening: emphatic myself ("It was done by Carol, Barbara, and myself") is on the list twice, once in speech and once in writing, while singular they ("Everyone has their own idea about this") isn't on the Ten Worst list, though it eventually gets an honorable mention in the section on nouns and pronouns (on pp. 145-7).  But quot-punc order is there, at #6, the top of the sublist of errors in writing.

Feierman notes that not everyone adheres to punc-quot order, but insists on consistency (Strict Local Consistency by Group and Context), even in the face of logic.  Rules are rules:

In the United States, periods and commas always go inside quotation marks.  That's our rule, and it is followed scrupulously by all professional writers. (p. 17)

Do I hear an objection?  Did you say our rule makes no sense?... Well, I agree with you, but that is not the rule. (p. 18)

This is the American system.  The rest of the English-speaking world uses the more logical system, as do publications of international bodies such as the United Nations.  The only Americans who do not follow the American style in this matter are lawyers.   [What is the Linguistic Society of America?  Chopped liver?] (p. 18)

Just to remind you: this is supposed to be a mistake that bosses really care about -- presumably one that could torpedo your chances of getting hired.  I truly hope not.  (Though I've had a businessman tell me -- when he discovered I was a linguist, in fact one specializing in English syntax -- that he would never hire someone who, as he put it, used which for that.  So maybe nothing should surprise me any more in the world of popular attitudes about grammar and usage.)

One more case, involving an even more minute point of punctuation (if that is possible).  Back in November, Barbara Wallraff fielded the following query in her "Word Court" column in the Atlantic Monthly (p. 152):

Adam Gordon, of Los Gatos, Calif., writes, "At the advertising and marketing agency where I work, we have an ongoing debate about the number of spaces between a terminating period and the first letter of a new sentence.  We writers were all taught to use two; my artists insist than one is the current rule.  Would you be so kind as to adjudicate?"

Wallraff allows free variation in many contexts, but maintains a One-Space Rule, requiring consistency, for publications:

Do anything you like in letters, e-mail, business memos, and other writing that's an end in itself, but put one space between sentences in writing that's going to be published, whether in print or on the Web.  It's standard.

And indeed, the Microsoft Word grammar-checker on my Mac marks every use of two spaces as an error in grammar.  This is enormously annoying to me, because, like Adam Gordon, I was taught (back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and people used typewriters) that I MUST use two spaces between sentences in typewritten work; using only one was a mistake, one that cost you some (small) fraction of a grade.  Now I've come to view that extra space as attractive and the use of only one space as squinchy -- but that's just a personal aesthetic judgment, based entirely on my experience.

Wallraff explains that the One-Space Rule wasn't always in force: "You can find extra space between sentences in books from as late as the 1960s."  (Hell, you can find them right now, in my Language Log postings.)  She suspects that the extra space came from the days of typesetting -- a  letter by John Bowers, of Bend, Ore., in the March 2007 issue (p. 19), disputes this, maintaining that "conscientious printers" used only one space and that the extra space "arose with stenography" -- but was, in any case, eliminated some time ago.  Both Wallraff and Bowers find a single space more aesthetically appealing than two (almost surely a case of liking what you're most familiar with).  And of course the One-Space Rule saves a character.  Omit Needless Characters.

But I can't for the life of me see why people should be regulating the number of spaces between sentences.  Why should consistency be required here?

Just to remind you: I'm not recommending Do As You Will in general; there are plenty of usages that are non-standard, regional, conversational, informal, hyperformal, etc. and so aren't appropriate in all contexts.  But there's also a huge territory of variability where, it seems to me, no regulation is necessary, and where efforts at enforcing consistency merely waste a lot of people's time and draw attention away from more important matters.  Certainly, the idea that Whatever Can Be Regulated Should Be -- Why regulate?  Because we can! -- is a spectacularly bad idea, at least on rational grounds.

Somewhat gloomily, I note that many writers have claimed that a major force in the spread of public schooling in modern times was the need for tractable and obedient workers, people who would conform to arbitrary rules and would perform tasks and follow procedures that didn't necessarily make sense to them.  The official rhetoric of public schooling has focused instead on the spread of learning for its own sake and the teaching of useful skills, for the advancement of individuals -- for "getting ahead" in life -- but I think it would be hard to deny the interests of industry and business in the enterprise.  Regulating grammar and usage and the mechanics of writing and insisting on consistency on even minute and arbitrary points fit right into this program.  And then the ideas of regulation and consistency become part of the folk understanding of the world and how it works.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at March 4, 2007 04:07 PM