Barbarians at the Gates of Grammar

My Latinist father and I always disagreed about language. Then I got old

Word Nerd

As the copy editor at The Walrus and the Keeper of the Style Guide, I often end up making decisions I know will vex my father. A classicist and a language traditionalist, he is familiar with Latin and Greek and is best friends with the Oxford English Dictionary. When I was a child, he would not simply correct my language missteps—he would fetch the dictionary and read the relevant entry aloud. I became intensely familiar with the phrases “strictly speaking” and “in the original Latin” and won friends and influenced people in primary school by insisting the plural of “octopus” was “octopodes” (“In the original Greek, you see…”).

When I hit my teen years, I rebelled in some standard and predictable ways involving dating and curfews and substances and general contrariness—but I also challenged the very particular kind of authority that my father represented.

“Strictly speaking, Sarah, that’s incorrect.”

“But it makes sense, Dad! That’s how everyone talks!”

“That doesn’t make it right. It’s important to have grammatical standards.”

“But language changes. What was right before isn’t necessarily right now!”

That is a very loose transcript of a fight I had with my father when I was about fifteen years old. I can’t remember what sparked it, but it had something to do with something I had said that was, from his point of view, grammatically incorrect. I didn’t realize until years later that we had, in effect, been acting out well-established oppositional roles in a kind of commedia dell’arte for word nerds: he was Prescriptivist, defender of established language rules and believer in the unchanging correctness of those rules; I was Descriptivist, underminer of such rules as long as popular usage was on my side.

It is commonly said that rebels mellow—or harden—as they age. Hippies become oil-drunk capitalists. Revolutionaries become authoritarians. NDPers become Conservatives. I was no different: after my adolescent flirtation with descriptivism, I became increasingly rigid. I found myself irritated by changes that I did not like and that seemed to me to be very stupid. I began blanching whenever “impact” was used as a verb (I’ve written about that already and really will try not to write about it again). “Impact” had not been used as a verb when I was young. The words and rules I learned growing up—many of which my father found as appalling as I find the verbified “impact”—became the basis of my sense of grammatical appropriateness. In fact, it turned out that I wasn’t a descriptivist at all: sure, language could change between my father’s generation and mine, but there was no need for it to change any more.

It wasn’t until I took a copy-editing course that my relationship with language changed yet again. Copy-editing seemed like an obvious vocational option for me: I was fond of words, enjoyed knowing things about words, and had a PhD in English. Surely, it would give me the opportunity to learn various rules and then mercilessly apply them. Finally, my knowledge of what the OED had said about words in the 1970s would be put to good use.

But copy-editing was not at all as I’d thought it would be. It was not a question of memorizing the contents of a single authoritative book and then keeping that same book nearby forever. We were urged to consult up-to-date style guides, to remain aware of changes in usage. At some point, I discovered that “access” and “contact” had apparently once been used only as nouns. “How can I access the building after hours?” sounds relatively fine to me. But if I had lived, say, fifty years earlier, I bet I would be carrying on about “access” just as I now do about “impact.”

The problem with pedantry is that the rules and definitions you passionately defend and get churlish about insist on changing. And the rules and definitions you uphold and upbraid others for ignoring may not actually have been around for very long; the pedants of yesteryear might even have seen them as examples of compromised and bastardized usage.

I now try to strike a balance between extremes: I maintain certain standards that seem reasonable, but I am willing to make changes to them if a critical mass of reasonable authorities (dictionaries, style guides, publications) tell me I can or should. And to keen-eyed readers familiar with established wisdom, these changes will look very much like regrettable mistakes. Recently, for example, we received an eloquent, informed, and polite email from a reader concerned that The Walrus had overlooked a grammatical error—the singular “data.” I’m not sure whether he’ll be reassured when he learns that it was not an oversight: it was the result of a cold, calculated decision.

“Data” is now treated as plural mostly in the context of scientific research and publication. In common usage, it’s quite firmly singular—that’s because it’s come to be viewed as a mass noun, rather than a count noun. Over time, as we’ve steadily forgotten about “datum” and begun to see “data” as referring to a chunk of information, the plural treatment has fallen out of favour.

As The Guardian’s David Marsh explains, “It’s like ‘agenda,’ a Latin plural that is now almost universally used as a singular. Technically the singular is ‘datum’/‘agendum,’ but we feel it sounds increasingly hyper-correct, old-fashioned and pompous to say ‘the data are.’”

My father, of course, says “the data are,” although he is—Latin etymology talk notwithstanding—not the least bit pompous. I knew he would notice the “data says” in the recent issue. I wondered whether he would be disappointed and see me as a barbarian at the gates of the shining city of grammar.

“I am (what’s the term?) conflicted,” he wrote in an email. “If one goes with contemporary usage, there’s no question that ‘this data is…’ (as with ‘the media is’) wins hands down (and the example of ‘agenda’ demonstrates how powerful is the process). I am myself incapable of saying ‘this data is…’—but I am reluctantly resigned to the demise of ‘datum’ (even some pedants know when the world has implacably moved on).”

I myself am reluctantly resigned to the fact that I am helping to kill “datum”—and to the fact that as the world implacably moves on, new copy editors will emerge who probably won’t even look twice at “impact” as a verb. In the future, I’ll almost certainly be the one writing letters.

Sarah Sweet
Sarah Sweet (@catastrophizer) is the magazine's copy editor.