In Act I, Scene 2, of Macbeth, a blood-soaked sergeant enters the presence of King Duncan, which prompts the king to ask the obvious question:
“What bloody man is that? He can report,
As seemeth by his plight, of the revolt
The newest state.”
What is the answer to this kingly question? That’s a usage pundit reporting some change in language usage that seems likely to provoke controversy. And that’s me after one of those interminable style discussions that characterize editors’ meetings. I sometimes—well, often—feel that I’ve just left the battlefield and that I need to find the nearest medic. It’s not that we’re all contentious. (In fact, very often these discussions are more like rowdy, amusing party games.) It’s just that the topics we address are fraught with complexities that make the plot of the Scottish play look like Dick and Jane. Worse yet, we frequently struggle with questions that few if any customers would ever recognize as questions.
Take the definite article. Please. The editors at SAS continue to struggle with the question of which SAS product names require the definite article and which require the zero article (linguist-speak for no article at all).
How do you make such a decision in the absence of clear guidelines from the usual usage manuals that we consult (Chicago Manual of Style, Harper’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage, etc.)? In the interest of precision, we have to make choices not unlike those parodied in the show Beyond the Fringe in the 1960s. In a sketch entitled “Portrait from Memory,” Jonathan Miller as Bertrand Russell meets the philosopher G.E. Moore, who, as it happens, is holding a basket of apples on his knees. Russell asks Moore if there are any apples in a basket. Moore says no. Then Russell asks if there are some apples in the basket. Moore says no. Finally, Russell asks Moore if he has apples in the basket. “’Yes,’ he replied. And from that day forth we remained the very closest of friends.” (Can you imagine what Moore would have been like in editors’ meetings?)
For our in-house style guide, my worthy colleague and fellow editor, Joel Byrd, created an article on the use of the definite article with product names. He reified our department’s lengthy and ongoing collaborative discussions and e-mails and produced a very useful table as well as a field test to help us make the best choice. Here is my paraphrased version of the guidelines:
- Use the definite article if the primary noun is countable (example: “the SAS Forecast Server”).
- Use the definite article if there is general industry agreement that the primary noun requires a definite article (example: “the SAS Intelligence Platform”).
- Use the zero article if the primary noun is uncountable (example: “SAS Business Intelligence”).
- Use the zero article if the primary noun is a metaphor “that does not have a defined, commonly accepted meaning in the software industry” (example: “SAS Management Console”).
The test devised to assist the editor is as follows:
- Write the primary noun in lowercase and then in uppercase (for example, “console” versus “Console” and “the console” versus “the Console”).
- Does the name of the object in isolation mean the same thing as it means in the product name? If so, use the.
Based on several examples of SAS product and component names, I decided to create a list of our extant primary nouns so that we could have an at-a-glance guide for new product names and whether or not they should take the definite article.
- Use the definite article with these primary nouns:
- Use the zero article with these primary nouns:
This list should be satisfyingly clear. But consider the problem with console. Our basic rules say that if the primary noun is uncountable, we should use the zero article. But the word console is obviously countable. On the other hand, in the land of product names and software products, console is a metaphor and not countable. Very crazy-making. So every time I come across a product name with the word console in it, my editing hand wants to insert the definite article.
There’s an even bigger problem. With any usage guideline, there’s a “missing middle” (one or more ungrounded assumptions) in the syllogism. That is, when and how do we decide that a given agreement has reached a critical point that forces us to change our guidelines? Yes, you guessed it: We have to have another editors’ meeting.
Why is it that grammar and usage rules, which once mastered should provide comfort and confidence, can be so frustrating? Why are there so many exceptions to cope with? And why do all those usage pundits have so many different opinions and remarkably little consensus? I think that those questions are answered succinctly by Otto Jespersen in his introduction to The Philosophy of Grammar (found in the first sentence of Chapter 1):
“The essence of language is human activity—activity on the part of one individual to make himself understood by another, and activity on the part of that other to understand what was in the mind of the first.”
Even if we think of the effects on language of just a few of the more dramatic forms of human activity—revolutions, inventions, and catastrophes—we quickly realize that language is a quivering, changeful thing. From vowel shifts, to spelling, to syntax, language always reflects the psyche of any given group. (And which psyche is more shifting than that in the software industry? A new product or technology can completely change perspective.) That’s especially true when society is in flux. It’s that shared, shifting psyche that dictates what really happens with language. And we might argue that the shifting is where the sublime arises.
As editors, we often have to make many decisions that we know will ultimately prove ill-advised, if not completely wrong, and that any number of our fellow editors will find objectionable. But that’s what human activity, war, peace, and the dialogue of the psyche are all about.
Think of the changes from “on line” to “on-line” to “online” that have occurred over the past few decades. There was no legislation, there was no vote, and there was no universal epiphany. So why did “on line” and “on-line” drop out of use (mostly—they are still used in some settings)? In The Fight for English, the linguistic historian David Crystal says that the short answer to questions about disdained usage is “somebody thought it was wrong.” (See Crystal, page 110. Crystal’s book, by the way, is a very readable history of grammar practice and grammarians over the past few hundred years.)
All editors, and especially those of us who serve on in-house style teams, have to make arbitrary decisions all the time. We must be as autocratic as is essential to produce a cohesive body of documentation. But we can never lose sight of the world outside our doors. We have to listen to that bleeding sergeant even if we don’t want to or haven’t got the time to hear what he has to say.