If you have any familiarity with grammarians, you probably know there are supposedly two types: prescriptive and descriptive. The former is obsessed with knowing all the rules and exceptions, and with forcing all writing and speech into compliance with those rules and exceptions. The latter is also obsessed, but not with rules. Rather, the descriptivist focuses on usage in the living language, which is always in flux. Rules? Bah. How people use the language is more important than whether they follow the rules. Reductionist thinking, you cry. Yes, for my purposes that is exactly how I’m describing the two types. Keep reading, okay?
Therefore, I posit a third type: the pragmatist. You may ask, What does that mean? And well you should. It acknowledges that most grammarians, whether they care to admit it or not, blend prescriptivist with descriptivist and make the writing or speech fit the purpose, the audience, and the subject matter as required. I know the rules. I am quite fond of most of them, actually. I also know how “real people” use the language. I am often less fond of this, but as I am also one of these “real people” I try to cut some slack, as the saying goes. If someone’s speaking casually to a friend, I won’t leap in to correct their subject-verb agreement or their use of a reflexive pronoun instead of a simple objective one. It’s just not that important under those circumstances. It’s really not. However, if I’m asked to copyedit someone’s work, you can bet your boots I’ll take at least these three things into account: the type of work, the subject matter, and the intended audience. Once I’ve determined those things, and the extent to which I need to mold the work into a particular shape, I’m off to the races.
This poses a problem for new writers who ask grammatical questions in an open forum where I am far from the only professional editor. At times I simply don’t answer. My views are sufficiently fluid that I can easily cause more problems than I solve with my “well, it depends” answers. If I can tell that the questioner is more likely to be confused than helped by my answer, I withhold the information. I wait, instead, to see how the others respond; I watch the interactions, watch the wording and the behind-the-scenes body language (c’mon, you can tell when someone’s hunched over the keys stabbing at them with pudgy—or bony—fingers while blood drips from their brow), and take my time deciding whether I need to interject my opinion. Often the answer is no. When the answer is yes, I take even more time and care crafting the response. I’m not out to denigrate any of my fellow professionals, nor am I out to make a new writer feel stupid for asking a grammar or usage question. (They’re pretty good at doing that to themselves, from what I can tell, without help from anyone.)
Things become muddier still when the question is about US vs. UK conventions. I have a very basic working knowledge of UK grammar, spelling, and mechanics. That doesn’t make me an expert on it, but it does provide a basis from which I feel mostly safe answering simple questions (which tend to be about terminal punctuation with quotation marks). Even so, my simple answers—which I self-edit to remove words and concepts that tend to answer unasked, tangential questions—usually invite others to chime in with “But she forgot this” and “Of course, there’s also this over here” and the occasional “Yeah, what she said.” From my pragmatic grammarian view: If you’re writing for the US market, use US grammar/spelling/usage/mechanics/style. If you’re writing for the UK market, do what’s expected from the UK. Don’t fuss over which one’s better, or more correct, or easier, or looks prettier to you, or whatever. Just don’t. Write using the rules for the market you’ve chosen. And if you don’t know those rules, guess what? I’ll tell you not to write for that market. That whole debate (US vs UK style and whatnot) grates on my editorial senses, frankly. There’s nothing to debate from where I sit. Use the rules for the country where you grew up, or use the rules for the country’s market you’ve chosen (after you’ve learned them or teamed up with someone who can guide you through them), but don’t trouble your pretty or handsome head over which set is superior. The answer is both and neither. They are what they are, for the reasons they are, and that’s really all you need to know. It’s what I will tell you if you hire me to work on your project. And I will ensure that your work conforms to US rules to whatever degree is expected.
I don’t think I’m breaking any new ground with this pragmatic grammarian stance, except perhaps by naming it. I know prescriptivists who sometimes relax the rules, and descriptivists who break out in hives when someone says “Anyone can do whatever they want.” All I’m saying, folks, is let’s be honest about the situation. Let’s admit that neither approach can stand entirely on its own. People aren’t going to speak to their friends and family in the formal language of a doctoral dissertation. They’re not going to write their dissertations with contractions and dialectical figures of speech (unless the dissertation’s on linguistics, focusing on dialects, and they’re providing examples).
Let’s be pragmatic, shall we?