ACES keynote speaker Anne Curzan looks at language rules and asks ‘why’

Anne Curzan is a linguist, a professor of English at the University of Michigan, an author and a radio host. She’s written on gender shifts in language, prescriptivism and other language topics.

Her “That’s What They Say” program on Michigan Public Radio has covered new words, semicolons, the great who vs. whom debate and a lot of other word subjects.

But Curzan also sees herself as a historian.

“As a historian of the English language, I look at both how words worked in the past and how they work today,” she said during a telephone interview.

Anne Curzan/photo courtesy University of Michigan Department of English LSA magazine.

Anne Curzan/photo courtesy University of Michigan Department of English LSA magazine.

Curzan, who will be the keynote speaker during the March 24 banquet at the ACES national conference in St. Petersburg, Fla., has a lot to say about how language changes and how teaching about language needs to change with it.

For her ACES keynote, she says, “The title that I have sent in is ‘Going grammando, a linguist looks at language peeves.’ What it’s like to own your peeve and how do you make decisions on what’s acceptable.

“One of my themes is to be asking ourselves all the time ‘why are we holding on to certain rules.’ Often there are good answers,” she said. “I don’t advocate throwing away all conventions of formal writing. But we need to ask ourselves is this a moment of change in formal language.”

Curzan mentioned several things that have been copy editor bugaboos: hopefully, split infinitives, begging the question.

“One I’ve changed on is ‘home in’ vs. ‘hone in,’” she said.

Curzan said she looked at “home in” and said “wow, this looks jarring.” So it raises a question about the role of a copy editor: Is it to hold on to the traditional or create writing that isn’t jarring?

On home in vs. hone in, “right now the scale is evenly balanced between both,” she said.

“One of the things I try to do — because I notice language all the time; I love the fact that I notice language all the time — is I try to recognize the times it’s my aesthetic or when it’s a convention I should be enforcing,” Curzan said.

“I was in a conversation when the question of ‘beg the question’ came up,” she said, noting the line between what the phrase means and how people use it. She says how people use it is winning.

One debate in the past few years among copy editors has been about use of singular they.

“I have spilled a lot of ink on singular they. Because I’m a supporter of singular they, both as a generic and as a pronoun for those outside the gender binary,” she said.

She starts here by looking at the history of the prescription against singular they use and how it came about.

“It’s my favorite part of looking at these usage items … how did it come about. Singular they has been used as a generic for hundreds of years. It helps argue the question that it’s not grammatical,” she said.

“It would be helpful to clarify what we’re really debating. Because it is singular, so we can’t debate that.”

The debate is really about “can we write that down in formal prose. And to me, that’s a copy editor question,” Curzan said.

“People who say you just can’t do that, let’s ask ourself, why can’t you. And it can’t be because ‘I learned it that way.’

“A lot of us have spent a lot of time acquiring these rules, and I think there are many guidelines about formal language that can make for better writing. What we need to do is distinguish the rules that do that,” she said.

“Not all prescriptive rules are created equal.”

She says that on singular they, her challenge to copy editors is to ask yourself why you aren’t allowing it. “Because I don’t think people notice it,” she said.

Some people embrace change and some will always complain about it.

“As a historian of the language, one of the things I study is a history of complaints about the language. You see the things that people were complaining about hundreds of years ago that are standard today,” she said.

She said there are copy editors who will hold on to things like not splitting infinitives even when stylebooks like AP have loosened up.

Some of that comes down to how we are taught about language.

“The way our schooling happened, many of us learned that it’s the right way. When that has been your training, it makes sense that you’re upset. It’s somehow disrupting what is right,” she said.

“What I’m trying to do is change the way we teach formal writing convention.”

Curzan, who edited a journal for many years, says she loves copy editing.

“I find it a very interesting perspective. I have my linguist hat, I have my copy editor hat and then I have my English professor hat, thinking about how am I going to teach things in a responsible way.”

One Response to “ACES keynote speaker Anne Curzan looks at language rules and asks ‘why’”

  1. Mike Lindgren

    Aww, Prof. Curzan has a very refreshing and common-sensical approach! Personally, I lean towards being a stuffy old prescriptivist, but I am trying to adopt a more flexible approach in keeping with the rulings of my betters! :)