Friday, January 28, 2011

What's Wrong with Peevologists?

Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defines a peeve as "a feeling or mood of resentment" or "a particular grievance or source of aggravation."

Yesterday, a minor ruckus was raised in the Twitter circles I fly in about the nature of and problems with so-called peevologists. Although peevology may be a relatively new term, it's an age-old concept that finds "language authorities" great and small obsessing over and harping on the grammatical errors and usage choices that get under their skin.

The general sentiment was that peevologists' rants were at best counterproductive and at worst downright hurtful. Or, as @StanCarey put it,
Peevologists have a compulsion to seize on perceived lapses in spelling, grammar, & style—often at the expense of context, manners, & facts.

A few Twitterers tentatively questioned/objected to the idea that peevology is such a horrible thing. I don't think they were wrong to question it, but I believe that the conflict arose because there are levels of peevology that weren’t taken into account. Lumping all peevologists together and denigrating them simply isn’t fair.

All writers, readers, editors, and English teachers have peeves. (Show me an editor who doesn't have any peeves and I'll show you an inexperienced editor.) Discussions of writing and editing peeves, like discussions of politics, can be fun, can be educational, or can be irritating, depending on how well a person recognizes peeves as personal bugaboos instead of crimes against language. How fair and how badly an peevological argument goes depends on a person's ability to recognize the difference (or, in some cases, that there is a difference) between grammar, syntax, usage, and style; or between shouldn't and can't; or between right and acceptable.

For example, the first sentence of this post illustrates one of my personal pet peeves. I hate it when speeches or articles start with the formula "Such-and-such a dictionary defines such-and-such a term as . . ." You might not have batted an eye about it, but I hate it. There's nothing grammatically wrong with it; it's a matter of style, and it's a style I simply don't like. It irks me when I see it.

You've probably already picked out some other phrase in the beginning of this post that you either think is wrong or at least badly written. These are your peeves. Maybe it was that I wrote can be three times instead of omitting those two needless repetitions. Maybe you were vexed by the fact that I wrote between and followed it with four items instead of only two. Or maybe it just rubs you the wrong way that this sentence begins with a conjunction.

The point is this: We all have peeves. But we don't all deal with our peeves in the same way. Below, I outline the different "levels" of peevology that I’ve dealt with, from the most heinous and damaging to the ones that are actually helpful. I also give them my own fun little names, which you can do with as you please. These “categories” are by no means mutually exclusive, and one might fall into different ranks at different times, depending on what’s being discussed or argued.

The Grammar Nazis

All writing is formal writing; all speech is formal speech.

At the top of the list are those who don't accept that the English language has changed — with the exception of the addition of new words — since the "experts" set the rules in stone in the 19th century. This type of peevologist believes that, in all cases, there is One Right Way, and all other ways are wrong. And, of course, the choices they make are the One Right Way, and if you choose otherwise, you're wrong. Consequently, there are only two ways to write: properly and badly. They don’t recognize their peeves as peeves; they are, after all, standing up for what is Right, not what they prefer. These are facts, not opinions.

These Grammar Nazis* are the people who tsk-tsk you for splitting an infinitive, slap your hand for starting a sentence with a conjunction, and unleash hell if you end a sentence with a preposition. As writers, these peevologists are mere annoyances. People who make a living with their words simply do their best to ignore them. As copy editors, Grammar Nazis are a little more dangerous and definitely frustrating. But there are a lot of copy editors out there, a lot of good copy editors, so you don't have to deal with Grammar Nazi editors for longer than a single project.

As educators, Grammar Nazis are extremely dangerous. Students of this type of peevologist must learn by rote a set of rules that don't make sense, and then somehow must reconcile on their own the fact that the great writers of English break all of these rules at one time or another. Ultimately, students of Grammar Nazis either learn to hate writing or become Grammar Nazis themselves — judgmental, friendless misers with their noses held high.

Well-Meaning Martinets

What does your textbook say about that?

Some people become peevologists because they try too hard to make their writing "fit" with what they were taught. These people treat their reference books like Bibles, turning to them for answers to every editorial conundrum. They just know that there is some formula for great writing hidden in these books, if only they could connect the dots.

The well-meaning martinets learn their peeves by comparing what their reference books say with what people are writing. In all cases, when the writer’s constructions don’t match the reference, the writer is wrong. When faced with conflicting sources (e.g., Oxford comma or no Oxford comma), they set aside the text and argue over which reference work is correct.

In the end, well-meaning martinets understand the science of writing but not the art of it. As writers and editors, martinets produce text that is grammatically correct and well-structured but is otherwise clinical, dry, and stale. As educators, they teach students a streamlined, bare-bones style that will certainly help them with professional writing — medical research, finance, statistical analysis, etc. — but won't teach them how to write anything interesting.

Cocksure Combatants

I know a little somethin' 'bout readin' and 'ritin'.

Cocksure combatants are those who have a handful of literary “weapons” that they strike with whenever the chance arises. They believe, whether from inexperience or from pure egotism, that they have an unerring grip on a particular minutia of writing, and whenever they see someone stray from their prescriptions, they pounce. They peevologize.

People who imagine themselves writers and editors but who don’t write and people just beginning careers in wordsmithing often fall into this category. I know I did a decade ago, and I might look back on this a decade hence and put my present self in this category. 

Some do it out of some noble sense of defending (what they believe is) the proper use of the English language; some do it because they really don’t understand English but want to join in the conversation; and some do it just because they like to argue, and they ultimately would rather be Right than accurate. If they are at all open-minded and willing to learn, these peevologists can be brought around to a more moderate outlook and can contribute meaningfully to the discussion. But here be trolls, too, who search the Internet for minor guffs that they can call out to make themselves feel superior, who carry Sharpies to mark up mispunctuated grocery store signs, and who write “authoritative” books called Eats, Shoots and Leaves.

Descriptive Historians

Great writers have been doing that for centuries.

Descriptive historians’ peeves aren’t so much about the choices that writers make but about the arguments that ensue because of those choices. The Historians’ ultimate source of information is, nobly, the great writers of English. It certainly stands to reason that if we are qualitatively judging writing, some writers must exemplify that literary nirvana we’re pursuing. When peeves collide, and peevologists argue choice A over choice B, the descriptive historian is there to point out that different great writers have at different times successfully used both choices: Shakespeare and Milton did it one way, Twain and Poe did it another way, so either way is acceptable and respectable.

Descriptive historians are correct to point out that arguments about Right and Wrong in writing are pointless, because there is no immoveable Right or Wrong. Historians change the spin of the argument, but they ultimately don’t contribute to it becausing showing that either of two choices is acceptable doesn’t help the writer or editor choose which one to go with — and a choice must be made.

As editors, the descriptive historians need an extensive style guide and convention sheet. They’re more liable to let a writer’s mediocre phrase pass — because there isn’t anything technically wrong with it — instead of shaping it and making it better. As writers, they can be difficult to edit, because they can argue against every edit you make with historical examples proving that what they originally penned is perfectly fine. As teachers — well, they don’t teach writing classes, they teach literature.

Experienced Aggravated Editors

Writing — and it’s corollary, editing — is both an art and a science.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: The number of rules that hold for every form of human communication is exactly zero. Experienced editors know this. They know that as the variables change, the “rules” change, and that some “rules” are entirely arbitrary. The variables — audience, tone, mood, style, and others — are what make a piece of writing more than just a collection of words on a page. (I believe that the only thing that all writing shares is that they are collections of words; everything else is variable.)

An experienced editor (and that includes experienced writers, who must self-edit) recognizes that these variables change and, like a mathematician setting aside complex trigonometric formulae to do his taxes, she changes with them.

But they do get aggravated by what they read. In many cases, they get aggravated from seeing the same bona fide mistakes over and over — except/accept, your/you’re, there/their/they’re — and they just wish that people would learn the distinctions. They have other peeves, too, though, that are based in personal preferences. If given the choice (that is, if it isn’t outlined in house style or on a convention sheet), they will always choose the same. But the important thing is that they recognize that there is a choice, and if house style contradicts their own personal preference, then they have no problem following house style.

But still, there’s that deep-seated desire to have everyone write the way that editor likes to write, not because one way is more correct, but because that’s just the way she likes it. Experienced editors feel the same about their peeves as they do about bad drivers: No one expects bad drivers to ever disappear, but we sure wish they would learn to drive better. It's the same with writing.

For example, I prefer to include a space on both sides of an em dash. I will choose the Oxford comma every time I have the choice. I really hate seeing an s on the end of toward. I wish everyone would agree with me and just start writing that way all the time, but that’s never going to happen. And I can accept that.

This is the type of writing teacher you want to have, the type who can separate the style from the syntax. This type of teacher can separately evaluate the quantitative mechanics of what you write and the qualitative personality and impact of what you write, and help you improve in the area that needs the most help. These are also the best editors and writers, who know when and how to bend the rules to make a more beautiful phrase. They bring poetry to prose and art to language.

* My apologies to @Trochee, who wrote "[P]lease don't Godwin yourselves by calling those people Grammar Nazis." Sorry, but the comparison fits too well. If your writing doesn’t meet up to the Grammar Nazis’ rigorous demands, it is destined for the oven.