Prescriptive grammar?

According to a Language Log post I saw first at A Teacher’s Education, the military wants us all to capitalize Soldier, even when it stands alone. Army Chief of Staff General Peter J. Schoomaker apparently thinks this will help instill respect for the people who are in the military.

It won’t work.

My first thought was not would people get it, but rather: would people DO it. I understand that we write, now (you and I, anyway, and your readers here), mostly according to the established pattern. But this seems like an iffy time to try such a thing: It seems to me (albeit as no historian) that the English language is accepting and conforming more and more to today’s digital shorthand — which basically ignores (intentionally or not) the accepted grammar rules.

I’d imagine the print media (which are resistent to change in grammar rules, particularly those pushed on them by people and institutions they’re working to guard against, as watchdogs) would ignore such a prescript. The AP Stylebook is notoriously slow to change — it was just in the last (yearly) edition that it finally conceded to popular opinion that internet shouldn’t be capitalized and that online doesn’t need a hyphen.

It’s good for the military to take charge of this where they can — but that’s basically in its own writings, which are seen by the general public quite rarely. Working at a newspaper, I saw a good chunk of them, and they, for several years now, have Soldier, Sailor, etc., capitalized. The copy desk routinely replaced all those capitalized letters for title standing alone with the lowercase letter. They corrected the releases. Capitalizing titles only before names is a long-standing tradition. It will be difficult to change. I’m sure a few publications will be quick to change — Stars and Stripes comes to to mind, although I’m not very familiar with it.

How long has it taken for a rule to change in the past? Take the serial comma, for instance. I was taught in high school (I had several different English teachers) that first the serial comma was used always, and later that it’s only used when needed for clarity. My nonuse of the serial comma was reinforced in college and in journalism classes particularly. Some teachers still require the serial comma’s use today, 12 years after I graduated from high school. Just because the government wants to institute a change in proper capitalization, does that mean it will happen? How many generations will it take for the change to take hold?

Finally, even if this did catch on, it’s a slippery slope. It’s no stretch that it would make writers rethink capitalization generally, and it would become a sign of a writer’s world view. Or, if a person is feeling particularly anti, he or she could simply not capitalize the titles (even with the names!) of the offending parties. What a mess.


2 responses to “Prescriptive grammar?

  1. LILY! This is great! You’ve hit on a lot of the issues that prescriptivists will argue, and you’ve done a good job of explaining them, too. Thanks for leaving this link on my blog; I really love having full-blown conversations about this sort of thing.

    (Oh, and as an aside, I ALWAYS use the serial comma. Not only that, but I use the final comma before the “and,” too. I learned that way, it makes sense to me (and doesn’t seem to confuse anyone), and I’m sticking to it!)

  2. Yeah, I know you’re a fan of using all the commas in a series list. I thought, though, that the final comma (before the “and”) WAS the serial comma — this Wikepedia entry backs that up. Needless to say, that’s the comma I was talking about in this entry. I tried to clarify, and meant to go back and actually define it before posting, but I didn’t.

    I enjoy the conversations, too.

    I think the biggest argument against the serial comma (unless needed for clarity’s sake) is conciseness. Journalists are well-known for trying to squeeze stories onto less paper, using less ink — all to save money. I’m a big fan of economizing.

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