Sunday, October 10, 2010

Rehabiliting the Bishop, or My bad

It appears that, in rtfm* that I've unfairly maligned Bishop Lowth. But, before my apology to his spirit, some background.

I recently finished the Lexicographer's Dilemma by Jack W. Lynch, a wonderful book about the difference between descriptive ("this is how the language works") and prescriptive ("this is how you should write and speak") grammarians. I've always fallen on the side descriptive side of this dispute: "the language as she is spoke." My advice to technical writers has always been to use the language and grammar of your audience. In rtfm* I used Bishop Lowth as an example of the kind of rules applied to the English language (not splitting infinitives, for instance, which is a perfectly normal thing for English speakers to do) and what technical writers shouldn't do.

Lexicographer's Dilemma made me realize two things. First, the value of prescriptive grammars and dictionaries: enourmous number of people want to speak and write like some social elite and, as a result, create a demand for those kinds of books. My value judgments  on the "technical" accuracy of the rules promulgated by those books is irrelevant. Those books are actively and directly supporting the goals of their readers.

More importantly (to me, at any rate), the book corrected my impression of Bishop Lowth. It appears, from Mr. Lynch's book, that Lowth was no more prescriptive than his peers and less than many others--not at all the evil presence I described in rtfm*. It's my own fault: I relied on secondary sources rather than actually reading Lowth's work. That was reprehensible, to say the least, and I apologize to Bishop Lowth. It's the least I can do.*

*I.e. If I could do less, I would.

Reading or read
Scott Pilgrim, Vol. 1: Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life by Bryan Lee O'Malley
The Walnut Tree by Martha Blum

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