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The Purist Debate and The English Language

Like all languages, the English language is constantly developing and changing. Today’s language is a far cry from the Victorian-style speech of our forefathers as we incorporate teen speak and pop culture slang into our everyday vocabulary, and new terminology emerges with the advent of new technology.

While this may be a natural development, many language purists recoil in horror at the degradation of our native tongue. Not only have new words been formed (when did “truthiness” become a word, and how is “fax” a verb?), but many of the standard grammatical rules seem to be open to interpretation.

Commas are becoming arbitrary in some cases, and punctuation itself is often an artistic decision rather than an accepted part of writing. This is good news for modern-day writers—freedom of choice is always good news for the artistic community—but it’s somewhat of a concern for those who make their living editing others’ work.

Copy editors and proofreaders are caught somewhere in the middle of this dilemma, as they strive for perfection without influencing or changing the author’s style or meaning. It’s a fine line and the subject of much debate. Writer’s Relief selects only those proofreaders who are sensitive to this issue.

Writers are faced with countless decisions about character, plot, setting, and style. They choose their language and style based on their audience and the purpose behind their pieces.

For example, it would be inappropriate to use text-messaging slang in a formal business letter, and a good writer would not script a Bronx street scene using stilted, formal English. If the writer were forced to conform to absolute correctness, the Bronx street scene would be a ridiculous piece of writing since the characters would speak like 19th-century poets.

On the other hand, standards seem to have slipped in recent years. One proofreader laments the frequent incorrect usage of pronouns, as in “If anyone wants me to pick up their mail, they should let me know.”

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Politically correct writers would not substitute “he” for “they” for fear of offending women, and the pronoun defaults to “they”—incorrect in number, yet commonly used throughout all manner of writing. Even the Oxford University Press condones the use of “their” with a singular antecedent, presumably to avoid being old-fashioned and sexist. Read more: The Use Of Gender-Neutral Language In Your Writing.

Purists also find themselves up in arms over split infinitives—once a no-no, but not a deal-breaker today. The Oxford University Press also now sanctions the use of split infinitives, much to the dismay of experts.

Traditionalists see these issues as proof of the degradation of our language and argue that we’re cheapening it through bad grammar. Others argue that writers should follow their purpose and write for their audience, rather than focusing on perfect grammar.

For instance, copywriters for advertising agencies tend to take extreme liberties with the English language (got milk?), and this is an acceptable practice in the industry. Poets and other creative writers also take great liberties with language and style.

Copy editors and proofreaders face a quandary. Alienate the writer and fix the incorrect grammar, or go with the flow…and cringe inwardly at “I only want to do what’s right.”

When it comes to the basics, however, most experts agree: it’s never going to be acceptable to be ignorant of the rules. We can all rest assured that it will never be acceptable to use they’re/their interchangeably. Run-on sentences will never be pretty, and hens should never lie an egg. At least not yet.

Writer’s Relief offers proofreading and manuscript formatting for creative writers. We also manage the submission process for writers of books, stories, novels, essays, and poetry.

6 Responses to The Purist Debate and The English Language

  1. Years ago the late William Safire in his NTimes language column used a "shrunk" that shold have been "shrank." Clearly he knew what he was doing and was looking for reactions from his Gotcha Gang. I may have gained my all-time celebrity when he printed my name and my protest: "I never thunk you would do such a thing." How many of you were bothered (or can remember "Honey, I shrunk the kids"?

    Brits and Yanks will always be divided by leapt/leaped, dreamt/dreamed, whilst/while, tonne/ton to name just a few. I have written satirically about such things but hope they never change. It keeps things interesting. It certainly doesn’t cause a twist in my nappies nor a burr in my diaper. It all Depends on what sets an individual off the deep end.

  2. The spelling of words differs according to the country.

    colorful – colourful
    neighbor – neighbour

  3. What about shined for shone, or leaped for leapt? Will it soon be swimmed for swam and thinked for thought?

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