I’ve been having a lively conversation with my friend Kevin, around the merits of certain grammatical rules. I seemed to have ended up in the descriptivist camp, while Kevin is representing the prescriptivists.
Of course, the delineation is never that simple. I think there’s more of a spectrum, with ‘do whatever you want’ at one end, and ‘thou shalt not’ at the other. Within that spectrum, I’m possibly more on the descriptivist side than Kevin, but will still venture deeply into prescriptivist territory, depending on the subject, the day of the week, and how much sleep I have had.
Of course, there needs to be a certain amount of agreed convention with communication, or you’re not communicating.
The fundamental tenet I try to use as a basis for my approach to writing is: does it affect meaning?
And by meaning, not just the literal meaning, but also the voice used—and how the writing is received by the audience.
Please call if you won’t be able to make it.
Will you call if you change your plans?
I can’t remember where I read this, and a quick Google search doesn’t bring anything to light (great story, bro!), but—in the folklore of my mind—I recall that when a certain restaurant changed the language they used when requesting that people notify them if they couldn’t make a booking, the question format above greatly reduced no-shows.
The psychology behind it is that when people were asked (rather than being given an imperative), they had to think about the question, come up with an answer, then commit to that answer by providing a response. This framed it very differently in their minds, and subtly changed the relationship between the customer and the restaurant, where the customer felt more of a human connection with the person they were talking to, and had, basically, promised them a favour.
Every sentence we write not only has to convey the literal meaning we intend, but also the desired tone or ’emotional meaning’. Whether we are trying to convince people of our authority on a certain subject, or get them to click ‘register’, we need to think beyond the literal content of the words on the page.
And, of course, this all comes back to the audience.
You will never be able to engage with everyone, all of the time. You need to identify your primary audience and write for them (hopefully, in a way that doesn’t alienate your secondary audiences).
I’m all for prescribing certain rules for comprehension’s sake. Though, I think we need to be careful that we don’t, in holding true to a grammatical tradition, sabotage our writing by leaning too heavily on prescriptivism, when a descriptivist approach would better suit the message.