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Flexiptivists of the World, Unite!

A flexible approach can be advisable in matters of language as well as food.

Some weeks ago, in discussing such “incorrect” idioms as not too big of a deal, can’t help but think, and I could care less, I suggested that I could care less whether or not people used them.

That was not, in fact, true. That is, while I recognize that standards of correctness in usage matters are constantly changing, and therefore that it would be foolish, as well as fruitless, to hold to the forms I learned while (metaphorically) sitting on Theodore Bernstein’s knee, I have to acknowledge that I would not myself use not too big of a deal, can’t help but think, or I could care less in anything I intended for publication. Furthermore, if I’m being honest, I would have to admit that when I come a certain category of usage about which I’m officially agnostic–even the notorious “Thanks for inviting my wife and I”–I think somewhat less of the writer who used it. (And I am talking about published prose here—speech and even online interaction are completely different ballgames.)

Predictably, I choose not to think of this position as hypocritical. Rather, I see myself as having a sort of benign double standard. I aspire to certain qualities in my own writing—not only avoiding can’t help but, but also (to name just a few things) a certain unexpectedness of diction, a variety of rhythm, a freshness of metaphor. And I count myself a fan of writers who also reach for and achieve ambitious goals. Yet if other writers do not aspire to or care about that level, I don’t denounce or belittle them; I’m just not especially interested in them as writers.

That’s a position between the classic prescriptivist and descriptivist. With a nod to the minimal meat-eaters known as “flexitarians,” I call myself a “flexiptivist.” The name may be new, but I believe the stance is far from unusual. Or I should say it’s not unusual among so-called descriptivists: that is, the linguists and others who are philosophically and temperamentally opposed to bashing usage or grammar mistakes, or even to using the word “mistakes.” (The other side is by definition pretty judgmental.)

To test this proposition, I took a look at some recent writing by four contributors to the estimable blog Language Log: Mark Liberman (one of the founders of the blog), Ben Zimmer, Geoffrey Nunberg, and Lingua Franca’s own Geoffrey Pullum, another Language Log founder. All are scholars whose academic bona fides are beyond question. (And, in the interest of disclosure, I will say that I have had gratifying and fruitful professional interactions with them all.)

I examined two recent LL posts each by Liberman, Zimmer, and Pullum. Nunberg hasn’t written much for the blog recently, so I looked at the transcript of a recent commentary he did for the radio show Fresh Air about the popularity of British expressions in the United States (a subject dear to my heart). And what I found satisfied me that they are all flexiptivists. That is, all seven pieces were not only well-written (by my lights), but remarkably free of usage “mistakes.” When the writers did deviate from the style-manual, they clearly were doing so intentionally–and just as clearly (to me), the decision was a good one.

The one bona fide, no-quotation-marks mistake came in via Liberman, who, like many linguists, is a practitioner of “logical punctuation”, in other words, putting periods and commas that are not part of a quote outside of quotation marks (as I did earlier in this sentence). Thus he referred to the

drama unfolding at tv tropes, a wiki that is ‘a catalog of the tricks of the trade for writing fiction’.

I can see his logic–that’s why they call it logical punctuation–and that’s the way things are done in most of the rest of the English-speaking world, but it’s not the way it’s done in the U.S.

After that, I had to get into the weeds to find anything that could remotely be considered an error. Mostly these were the result of the writers writing in a conversational register; if they had chosen the”correct” option, the result would have been palpably stiff. Nunberg, in discussing an imaginary person who would say something like, “I’m not very keen on it, but I’ll have a go,” commented: “People claim to discern some useful nuances of meaning there, but who are they kidding?” So he eschewed whom—but doesn’t everybody these days?

Similarly, while Liberman refers to someone who “wants to explicitly endorse X in order to prevent a misunderstanding,” split infinitives are so near universally accepted that I feel bad even mentioning them.

Nunberg observes, “But it will be awhile yet before [spot on] reaches the cultural outer boroughs.” A stickler would say he should have written “a while,” but sticklers who stickle on that level are rare.

Zimmer’s posts show him as a meticulous stylist, diverging from strict-prescriptivist-friendly usage only in the following sentence. I challenge you to spot the divergence: “While Mark Davies at BYU had previously created his own POS-tagged version of Google Ngrams as part of his corpus collection, he only had access to the publicly available datasets of n-grams (up to 5-grams, with a threshold of 40 occurrences for inclusion) and thus wasn’t able to parse the corpus in a systematic fashion.”

(The answer is putting only after he instead of after access. Some people, including my first boss, used to proscribe using while except for when referring to time. But that was a long time ago.)

As for Geoffrey P., as Lingua Franca readers well know, the man can write. And, as much as he torments prescriptivists, they would find virtually nothing to complain about in the posts I read. I could only find only this one sentence, in a piece called “The Language of Phone Numbers”: “My cool son Calvin, for example, has a number which implies that he lives in Oakland, California; he doesn’t, he does his video game programming in the Pacific North West.” Which should be that (according to Fowler but admittedly not everybody), there is a mild comma splice after “doesn’t,” and the lack of a comma three words in implies that Pullum means to differentiate Calvin from one or more of his other cool sons. (If in fact he did, I’m sure he’ll let me know.)

And that was it. So I claim Liberman, Nunberg, Pullum, and Zimmer for the flexiptivist camp. What do you say, gents?

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