Thursday, March 16, 2006

The Trouble With Rules

I had dinner the other night with a friend from out of town who's a newspaper editor and writer. I was explaining to him what my blog was about and he mentioned that at his paper there is a strict preference for "such as" over "like" in references to examples of a set ("Bands such as [not 'like'!] the Stooges and the New York Dolls helped set the stage for punk rock").

The reasoning behind the rule is that if you say "things like X and Y," you are excluding X and Y from what you are talking about: not X and Y, but things like X and Y. Substituting "such as" indicates that these are examples of what you are talking about. (Note that this rule is far from canonical. Even prescriptivists like/such as Wilson Follett and Theodore Bernstein pooh-pooh the distinction.)

My friend said he'd never encountered that rule before starting at the paper, and he found it irksome, because "such as" often sounded fussy and stilted. He resisted the rule for a couple of months, but then he gave in. By then he found that he had unconsciously internalized the rule, and he'd begun to feel irritated whenever he came across an improper use of "like." The problem is that "such as" still didn't sit well with him either, so he was in a bit of a double bind. That's what happens when you subject yourself to all these conflicting prescriptivist rules: You become Tongue-Tied.

He mentioned another nefarious phenomenon involving linguistic rules. An editor at a publication he once worked for once told him that it was wrong to use a contraction when the verb is "has"—i.e., you can write "he's" for "he is" but you can't write "he's" for "he has." He thought this rule was ridiculous and decided to ignore it. But soon enough he found himself flinching whenever he came across an example of someone writing "he's" for "he has." Somehow he'd managed to internalize a rule that he disagreed with.

What is this strange power that these rules have, even over someone who doesn't buy into them? I find it fascinating that one can almost against one's will be induced to feel irritation at someone else's use of language simply by being exposed to a rule, no matter how groundless it might be. Maybe it has something to do with hearing the rule from an authority figure. You are confronted with a dilemma. Do you defy the authority or succumb to it? It's much easier to go along, of course. And once you've submitted, the tendency is to want to impose it on others, too. Hence the almost involuntary feeling of irritation that arises when someone else breaks the rule. You've agreed to comply, to be obedient—why should others be allowed to get away with defiance?


At 1:39 PM, Anonymous a guy like me said...

There's something about having learned the arcane rules of a subculture that breeds a feeling of superiority. You see it all over the place--take Amanda Hesser's book about Mr. Latte. The point of that book seems to be that her vulgarian husband doesn't know that Europeans never drink latte after a meal. If you're not a foodie, you would say "So f***ing what? I like latte with my dessert!" And you'd be right. But Amanda Hesser knows the rules, which doesn't just allow her to be condescending to those who don't--it practically requires it.

My main objection to the "like" construction comes when the person or thing in the comparison is completely sui generis. An example might be, "Rock stars like Courtney Love." Well, there ain't nobody like Courtney, for which we can all be grateful.

At 9:55 AM, Blogger Melanie C said...

Using "like" too many times might also induce some kind of Valley Girl syndrome. I like "like" if it's used sparingly.

At 1:03 PM, Blogger tongue-tied said...

Melanie C, isn't it the, like, hedging use of "like" (as they call it at Language Log) that is associated with the Valley Girl mentality? My impression is that the use of "like" to mean "such as" is pretty universal.

At 1:14 PM, Blogger Melanie C said...

You're right, but I think the use of too much "like" might still have that effect.

At 3:32 PM, Anonymous finovino said...

might this be an idiosyncrasy of your rather idiosyncratic dinner partner's?

At 11:48 PM, Blogger Bill said...

I'll defend the "such as" thing to a point (stop me if you've heard this one before, but Bill Bennett condemns things like gambling, if not things such as gambling), but the refusal to acknowledge the possible "has" meaning of an apostrophe-s contraction is just insane. And all too common.

At 1:03 PM, Blogger tongue-tied said...

Bill, a couple of thoughts. "Such as" seems better than "like" when the phrase is nonrestrictive, but otherwise I would side with my dinner companion and say that it sounds stilted in most cases like the example in my post. As for "he's," there are certain cases in which I prefer to spell out "he has" because "he's" can be misread as "he is." That's only in relatively rare circumstances, though; it's silly to extend that into a general rule. But people like to make rules out of things that work only in particular situations.

At 1:05 PM, Blogger tongue-tied said...

finovino: My dinner partner falls within the range of normality, I think. But even if he didn't, sometimes the pathological only differs in degree from the "normal."

At 1:11 PM, Blogger tongue-tied said...

a guy like me: Would Amanda Hesser object to drinking regular coffee after dinner? Espresso? At the dinner in question, we were offered coffee and all declined, partly, I'm sure, because the scintillating conversation left us energized. Personally, I never drink coffee at dinnertime, because I like to sleep at night.

At 2:29 PM, Blogger TootsNYC said...

"He's" for "he has" isn't wrong. Not at all.

But a time or two, I have had to back up, bcs I read it as "he is" and didn't realize I had the tense wrong until later in the sentence. That's the sort of thing I want to protect my reader--and my writer--from

So I sometimes deliberately un-contract it. But I would never make it a RULE.

But I think you've got some interesting thoughts about rules.

It is frustrating, that snotty "you must be an idiot because you don't know" attitude.


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