When I published The Power of Six, my first collection of short stories, a reviewer said that the book had grammatical errors, albeit small ones. This shocked me, as the book had been professionally edited and proof-read. So, I reached out and asked her for an example. “You start a sentence with a gerund,” she said. “So?” I asked. “So, that’s wrong.”
I was baffled by this. Surely, that’s a matter of style, right?
This seemingly innocent question actually led me into a minefield. As The Economist points out, for half a century, language experts have fallen into two camps. Most lexicographers and academic linguists stand on one side, and traditionalist writers and editors on the other. The question that defines the to camps is deceivingly simple: should language experts describe the state of the language accurately? (Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, in 1961, shocked the world by including common but disparaged “ain’t” and “irregardless”.) Or should they prescribe how the language should be used (“Irregardless ain’t a word”)? Over the decades, the two sides have traded insults: prescribers are authoritarians in denial about the real world. Describers are permissivists with no standards.
Both camps were ill-served by their respective standard-bearers. Many clueless prescribers really did push dud rules: the ban on split infinitives, the ban on ending sentences with prepositions, the notion that “since” cannot mean “because” and so many more. These were passed down from teachers to students over generations. When academic linguists began systematically investigating English by looking at texts and listening to speakers, they found that many such “rules” were anything but, and some began taunting the rule-promoters. They also sought to defend non-standard dialects, where for example double negatives (“I ain’t got no”) are ordinary, not ignorant.
Reaching a Common Ground
In the pushback against a history of prejudices, prescription represented authority and tradition, and description represented democracy and progress. But sensible writers on both sides have come to agree, however tacitly, that there is a variety, called standard English, with rules that can be found by looking at large volumes of the stuff. Two authors epitomize this new, balanced approach. Steven Pinker is a describer, a linguist and cognitive scientist. But in 2014 he published “The Sense of Style”, a guide to good writing that ended with a section of prescriptions: do this, not that. They were grounded in description, not dogma—but prescriptions they were nonetheless.
Now come two new books by Bryan Garner, a proud prescriptivist who reaches the same point from the opposite direction. Mr Garner has called himself a “descriptive prescriber”, and this is clearer than ever before in the fourth edition of his masterly usage dictionary, “Garner’s Modern English Usage”, and a new book, “The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation”. These new books rely not on mere clippings, but on big data: millions of books scanned by Google. This lets Mr Garner compare “he pleaded guilty” with the upstart “he pled guilty” (“pled” is gaining ground, but “pleaded” is still three times as common in books). On this basis, Mr Garner prescribes: stick with “pleaded”. But he allowed Google’s data to change his mind, too: “run the gantlet”, however traditional, has long been outnumbered by examples of “run the gauntlet”, so he has accepted the newer usage.
A sensible consensus emerges on most usages. On some issues, reasonable people can disagree: The Economist’s own Johnson is one of those who will reserve “He literally exploded laughing” to refer to a bloody scene requiring a mop, even though he knows many great writers have used “literally” figuratively. And on a more personal level, I still start sentences with gerunds.