There are two little schoolmasters inside my computer, with a ruler they use to rap my knuckles. Over and over again, my spelling checker and its spouse the grammar checker insert wiggly red or green lines under what I have written. And over and over again I click ‘ignore’.
What’s this all about? I write correct Standard English – the form of the language used by educated speakers and writers, a group to which I know I belong – but those who programmed these cyber editors have applied sweeping general rules which are not always appropriate.
There is, for instance, the restrictive and non-restrictive use of ‘which’, perfectly acceptable in both the British and US versions of our language. Yet every time I use ‘which’ in its non-restrictive sense, up pops that green line and the suggestion that I either follow it by a comma or replace it by ‘that’ (there it goes again in the last sentence of my first paragraph).
I do not want to do that. I want to use ‘which’ as it has been used for centuries, in a manner which is grammatically correct. I know it’s correct and so I ignore that green finger, but thousands of people probably think, “My computer knows best” and they make the suggested change.
In a similar vein, every time I use a passive construction, I see that little grass snake sneaking in with a proposal for an active construction that is often far more unwieldy than my passive, and – what is more important – shifts the emphasis of my statement. That little beast also shouts ‘cliché!’ on occasions when I am deliberately using a hackneyed phrase for a particular effect.
The red line appears regularly when I use the Oxford rules for words ending in –ize and –ise . Someone somewhere has decreed that “British English should use –ise and American English should use –ize”. That is very simplistic. I assume it was an American who had the idea. Mr Horace Hart’s rules have been my Bible for decades, and I’m relieved to note that the newest edition maintains its original distinctions. (I have to admit to a shudder when I see ‘analyze’ and ‘paralyze’ even though I know these are correct in American English). Worse than this, however, my spelling checker has occasionally criticised something that was correct and demanded an incorrect spelling, like changing ‘lying’ to ‘laying’ in the sense of being in a supine position.
Why am I making all this fuss? Why not just continue ignoring what I know is wrong and be thankful that, as my sight deteriorates, there is a handy little widget helping me up now and then when I trip over a typo? Be grateful, Woman!
My rant is fired by the fear that this prescriptive and proscriptive pedant is changing general usage. Why should that bother me? I don’t really know. It isn’t a new phenomenon. Shakespeare and Donne weren’t worried about spelling or grammar, so who am I to moan? Probably there were scholars in Caxton’s time who complained that he was spelling words wrong and maybe he was, but he carried on regardless. Are these software editors merely following Caxton’s lead?
Still, I am not alone. Out there is a new Don Quixote tilting at linguistic windmills, an editor, a language-loving scholar called Jonathan Owen, who shouts from the rooftops what I am muttering about in my chamber. He has a blog called Arrant Pedantry and has just finished a Master’s thesis on the subject of how far narrow-minded editors are enforcing changes in usage. How it comforts me to find a kindred spirit!
PS: WordPress editor wants me to write ‘wrap my knuckles’,and ‘giggly green line’. It finds ‘over and over again’ redundant and also doesn’t know ‘proscriptive’. Please, WordPress People, programme your editor for British English according to OUP! (Oh dear – programme is another one …)