The descriptive backlash

Last month The Independent published a story featuring an email etiquette rule by Jonathan Tisch, a hotel magnate. According to Mr. Tisch, the one word you should never use to start emails is “I”. Referring to mentors, teachers and your own education is a common strategy when formulating prescriptive rules, and Mr. Tisch is no exception. He explains that this particular piece of advice was handed down to him by his former boss and mentor who claimed that “whenever you’re writing a letter — and now it applies to emails today — never start a paragraph with the word ‘I,’ because that immediately sends a message that you are more important than the person that you’re communicating with.” What was interesting about this piece is the commentary that followed under the article itself and in social media. The like-minded readers were among the minority and most commenters expressed their disagreement (“I don’t know about you but I know that I enjoy using a  nice perpendicular pronoun every now and again.”) or lack of interest (“Useless article”) in the prescriptive advice.

In the survey Ingrid Tieken and myself conducted in 2015, we asked our respondents (some of them, we presume, including our readers) about their experiences in publicly
voicing complaints about language. Most of the them replied that the complaints they voiced were not complaints on “wrong” usage, but on the pedants’ complaints themselves.

Although there is no doubt about continuing needs for usage advice, the tables are steadily turning with the backlash against prescriptive advice on the rise.

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6 Responses to The descriptive backlash

  1. Lee Dembart in Los Angeles says:

    Oddly, I have a complaint about one sentence in Morana Lukač’s post. The sentence is, “In the survey Ingrid Tieken and myself conducted in 2015, we asked our respondents … about their experiences in publicly voicing complaints about language.” My complaint is that myself is the wrong pronoun. The word is the subject of the verb conducted, and the correct first-person singular nominative/subjective case pronoun is I. The sentence should read, “In the survey Ingrid Tieken and I conducted in 2015….”

    Bryan A. Garner writes, “myself is best used either reflexively or intensively . The word shouldn’t appear as a substitute for I or me .”

    Similarly, the Chicago Manual of Style says, “Avoid using myself as a pronoun in place of I or me. Use it reflexively {I did myself a favor} or emphatically {I myself have tried to get through that tome!}.”

    • Morana Lukač says:

      Thank you for your comment, Lee Dembart! “Myself” in the subject position does constitute a usage problem, one, actually, that is included in our database. Although it is often not recommended in prescriptive literature, there are historical warrants for its usage (“It wasn’t that Peter and myself were being singled out”—F. Weldon, 1988; “Neither Geo nor myself are naturally pushy types”-J. Dankworth, 1988; “My friends and myself do not find it a great problem”—Paintball Games, 1989 [examples from The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage 2000: 510]). Here it was used for effect and as an underscore of personal reference. In a blog post reporting on the descriptive backlash, I find it appropriate; personally, however, I would avoid it in different contexts, such as formal writing.

      • I myself agree ;-) that ‘I’ shouldn’t be used as the first word of a paragraph in a formal letter, certainly not in the first paragraph. It is, however, the reason why so many formal letters start with horrific, convoluted sentences that don’t mean an awful lot.

        As for the incorrect use of ‘myself’ in the phrases such as ‘my wife and myself’, I would say that is still always incorrect. In the examples from Fowler, they could all be replaced by ‘I myself…’, so as you say, they are all used for emphasis. As a replacement for ‘me’ or ‘I’, I prescribe that it is still considered incorrect by people who care about grammar rules.
        British native speaker and translator

      • Morana Lukač says:

        Thank you for your comment and for continuing the discusussion, integratedexpat! It is interesting that you mention formal letters in discussing the usage of ‘I’. The differences between formal written letters and formal emails are considerable as the work of linguists doing register analysis has shown (see for example Berber Sardinha 2014 in https://goo.gl/HWaeUz).
        Paying attention to the context of usage (such as in the two examples mentioned here) is relevant in any discussions on usage conventions.

  2. Alison says:

    Hi Morana, great to see your work is going well! @Integrated expat > “people who care about grammar rules” strikes me as rather an odd thing to say to someone who is, quite literally, doing her PhD on grammar rules (or even more specifically, people who care about grammar rules) …

  3. Netiquette says:

    This has been a struggle for me. There is no doubt that overusing “I” is incorrect and often overlooked online. Feedback from classmates made it more clear to me. It means one of two things in my opinion. Lack of a good education for one. Inadequate proofreading as another. Overconfidence is a symptom.

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