Bad reactions to usage: it cuts both ways

John Rentoul and Oliver Kamm are having a disagreement of some sort about language.

Oliver says that “for Chris and I” is grammatically fine and need not be changed to “for Chris and me” for correctness’ sake:

Pedants take it as a given that the grammatical rule for assigning case is the same for a coordinated (or conjoined) pronoun as it is for a non-coordinated one. Yet that doesn’t follow.

He takes a similar position on many of the prescriptive “rules” of English.

John agrees that there’s nothing strictly ungrammatical about this sort of thing. But he thinks that it’s advisable to avoid it anyway:

My defence of pedantry is twofold. The negative argument is that the writer or speaker should do as little as possible to distract the reader or listener from what is being said. And the positive argument is that it is worth observing the conventions of “correct” spelling and grammar, even if we know that they are arbitrary, because they are markers of quality.

Oliver replies:

I am eager, even zealous, that conventions of Standard English be taught well.

But Standard English is a dialect, not “correct English”. Good writing depends on register, not pedants’ ‘rules’.

They do seem to be disagreeing, but it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what about. Maybe just emphasis?

Both use standard English in their own writing, and both recommend knowledge of standard English to others. Both put “correct” in scare-quotes in this context.

I think John worries that if Oliver goes around insisting that non-standard conventions aren’t wrong, people will use them in standard writing. And I think Oliver worries that if John goes around warning against non-standard usages, people will think non-standard is wrong.

These could both be reasonable worries; a lot of usage debate is painfully simplistic, of the “X is right and Y is wrong” variety. Nuanced positions, in language as in politics, tend to get ignored or caricatured.

I agree with Oliver that people shouldn’t shrink their own linguistic repertoires (and those of others) out of a fear of a mythical rulebook. And I agree with John that people need to have good standard English when it’s the right tool for the job – as it often is. Which of these two points is more important will depend on the situation.

Anyway, they hardly need me to adjudicate.

My response to John’s twofold “defence of pedantry” is that his positive and negative arguments both boil down to this: write in the way that will make your message come across best to your readers.

I agree. But it cuts both ways.

Sure, some people are annoyed by usages that they regard as wrong. And whether they’re right that these are wrong is beside the point: if they react badly, you lose them as readers. However, a rigid insistence on certain rules (or conventions) can make sentences sound bad to other people. A studiously unsplit infinitive can come across as awkward; zealously “whom”ing can seem stuffy. This is a different kind of bad reaction but it can still cost you readers.

It depends on the audience.

You can give yourself a headache trying to work out exactly what’s a matter of correct vs incorrect, what’s formal vs informal, what’s standard vs non-standard, what’s a matter of stylistic taste, and what’s one of the “rules” that finds support from some small-to-medium-sized proportion of standard English speakers.

But if you’re a writer or editor, you don’t really need to: you just need to judge whether the punters will swallow it.

(I’ve written at more length on this before.)

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