Date: Wed, 6 Mar 1996 22:48:36 -0500


Subject: Re: Survey of e-usage

On Mon, 4 Mar 1996, Allan Metcalf wrote:

ADS has been asked to endorse a survey of usage. What do y'all think?

I like it. :-) I'll state my reasons, too, in a minute. But first, I'd

like to address a few words (okay, a few paragraphs) to the respondents who

were disparaging the "prescriptivist" nature of the survey (and its

future recommendations). I didn't think Bruner et al. were trying to come up

with forms to force on everybody, I thought they were just trying to come up

with standard forms.

I think there's a category between prescriptivism and creativity, and that's

standardization, which is just repetition. Repetition's a great thing. :-)

The brain processes repetition more efficiently than it does original

forms. I can dig up references if anybody wants (preferably after the end

of the term :-) ). It's easier to produce repetitive forms and it's

easier to comprehend repetitive forms. My original reaction when I first

started getting interested in repetition was that claims (by, for

example, Oliver Sacks) that we have an impulse to repeat was "But where's

the creativity! Where's the free will!" In fact, repetition frees you up

to be really creative from time to time; and it'd be exhausting to have

to be creative (and to interpret creativity) all the time.

In publishing, the virtue of repetition (e.g., orthography (orthos,

right?) and standardized style) is that it frees up everyone -- writers,

readers, editors -- to focus their creative energies on the content

rather than on the form. I'd rather look in a style manual to find out

how to spell Muammar Qaddhafi than have make it up every time. And I'd

rather *read* the same spelling every time, too, 'cause it'd be easier

than interpreting a different spelling every time (although fat chance of

that with Qaddhafi).

The nice thing about coming up with a list of standardized forms for

'net terms, which don't seem to have standardized forms yet, is that if

you want to use them, they make your life simpler. Standardization isn't

inherently evil; linguistic variation (phonological, dialectal, lexical)

is just a standard for a given speech community--isn't it?--and not

random production of segments or words or whatever.

Of course, if you don't have a talent for remembering standardized forms

(and being able to remember standardized forms is no virtue, but it's

sure convenient), who cares? Spell Qaddhafi (or e-mail or Web page) any

way you want to. Or if you have your own (standardized) variation, why not

use it? Or if you have a creative impulse and want to produce fresh forms

every time, why not? (Well, 'cause it's hard on your reader, but that

shouldn't stop you from expressing yourself. Art's hard.)

My reading of the Bruner post is that they'd like to set up something

that will make the tasks of not-so-creative people like me a little less

inefficient. I didn't get the impression that they were intending to try

to force their style on anybody (feel free to jump in and (dis)abuse me,


I personally despise those tsk-tsking prescriptivists who insist that,

for example, we never end a sentence with a preposition (which I actually

tend to be a fan of). But prescriptivism is not the same thing as


So I personally like the Bruner survey, but I guess that's because I'm a big

fan of repetition. :-)

I'll shut up now. :-)



Joan C. Cook Imagination is

Department of Linguistics more important

Georgetown University than knowledge.

Washington, D.C., USA

cookj[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE] --Albert Einstein