top of page

A Tacit History

While taking a course full of fellow editors and run by a highly experienced editor, we were informed that we are the gatekeepers of language.

The adaptations made to the style guides each year are because of us. People get together, read what's published, and they notice the work that's written and edited. They put together patterns of what editors are okay with and they keep tabs on how effective communication changes over time. Changes are made to our style guides every year because of the variation of agreements that writers and editors make with one another.

To the displeasure of who Steven Pinker refers to as "the purists," that's also how dictionaries are written. People listen to what words are used and what context they are used in and document the usage of that word. The words become real. It's up to the dictionary to catch up.

Validation is a bonus.

Dictionaries and style guides are there as guidance, to show how words or linguistic concepts have been used historically convey meaning and how writers can construct things so that they can be understood by people who have collectively set expectations about how language needs to be.

During the course I referenced, the instructor told us that the way that books in English have usually printed different languages or dialects is to italicize them. However, she'd recently read a book that's predominantly in English, but had some dialogue in Spanish. It struck her that, this time, the dialogue wasn't italicized.

Why would different languages or dialects be italicized in the first place? We already understand based on its spelling that it's different from the predominant language of the book, but taking that extra step does unintentionally carry implication. We're othering it unnecessarily. I'll illustrate with an example. Science fiction or fantasy novels might have their own language and terminology allocated to the world they're presenting. Sometimes, that language or those terms are italicized, but much of the time, they are not. In this way, and this is usually unintentional, we do grant more respect to fictional languages and terminologies than we do those that exist.

Steven Pinker does acknowledge the complications in higher education or within any classroom environment. Educators have no grounds to advise students to abandon their language or parts of their culture or to be disingenuous to themselves, but while we have come a long way in that respect, many still possess invading and inhibiting biases. However, higher education has a tight grip on these biases regardless of content. The aim is to help students to conform to a type of language that is in constant development to help them communicate with other scholars using a method that the other scholars would not use in their every day speech.

Colloquially, we would call this conundrum "annoying."

In addressing this, there are points to be made about the flaws in the current system that we have to educate on writing. There is such a thing as poor feedback and not having the most effective expectations when it comes to grading a piece of student writing. However, this isn't to say that people should not have access to an educational system by which they can learn how to express themselves and how to be understood. The same students can eventually use reference materials such as style guides and dictionaries, learn about how language has been used, and can eventually help that language to be more inclusive.

Pinker does address an excellent point when he says that the reasons why certain rules and standards exist is because people have collectively agreed on those rules. However, I wanted to refocus that. I believe it's more than a collective agreement. Because we have collectively agreed that certain rules to language structure need to exist, we've applied them consistently. Since we've been constantly re-affirming these rules again and again, we now rely on those methods in order to be understood.

This can lead to some problems when an arguably better message communicated in a way that doesn't follow current rules of mechanics as well is not taken as seriously as any message that follows those rules succinctly.

We all love beautiful prose, intricate and creative uses of language, and nurturing that is important. However, there is a strong difference between nurturing effective language and reversing the effects of language at the expense of a person's voice.

We have not yet agreed on a solution, but we haven't abandoned the search for it either.


Thank you so much to everyone who has contributed to this discussion thus far!

The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker is very much worth the read if you're interested in learning more about why we have certain habits in writing or why certain pieces of writing can elicit specific thoughts. It's also very funny.

I am currently working on a project that involves the participation of other writers that I know, and I am excited to share it within the coming weeks. If you would like to become a member of Purposeful Prose, you will be able to participate in my forum and engage with my posts. You will also be notified as soon as a new post is made. If you are interested in reading more, follow Purposeful Prose on LinkedIn where I have been sharing additional content outside of the blog.

As always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts!


Pinker, S. (2014). The sense of style: The thinking person's guide to writing in the 21st century. Viking

Recent Posts

See All

3 comentarios

Vita Viviano
Vita Viviano
28 ene 2022

Being the "gatekeepers of language" would seem to be a heavy burden indeed! It is interesting, however, to know how rules and conventions are established and how that prescribed usage can impact the voice of a text. Thanks again so much for another insightful post!!

Me gusta

28 ene 2022

What a good insight! If you're not familiar with the work of linguist James McWhorter (who writes for the NYTimes among other venues), you'll find his position on these matters very congenial, I think. He does frown on efforts to suppress unwoke speech, though, so be warned.

Me gusta
Contestando a

That does sound very interesting. As to the suppression, I’m not quite sure where he stands yet, so I can’t form an opinion on that part. I think it’s important to be aware of any myths that are being perpetuated so that they can be responded to appropriately. If any community is not safe due to a particular rhetoric, if that’s not in the open, then the vulnerable community doesn’t know what they need to watch out for or that they’re vulnerable.

Me gusta
bottom of page