Arbitrary Semantic Choices in Writing

You like that title? It almost sounds academic, when in reality, this post comes about because I’m in the middle of a major project at work and this idea of arbitrary semantic choices has been a minor frustration for me.

Arbitrary decisions in language are nothing new. In the book You Are What You Speak: Grammar Grouches, Language Laws and the Power of Words (oh my, no Oxford comma in that title…), Robert Green pointed out that much of the “rules” in Elements of Style, that near-Bible from which most future writers establish their hard-and-fast grammatical rules at an early stage, are arbitrary decisions that William Strunk codified due to personal taste, and E. B. White enshrined as rules forever flung in the faces of High School students, everywhere. Now to be sure, I follow quite a few of those rules as obsessively as any other writer. Much of what is found in the pages of Elements is common enough and accepted enough that we may as well call them “rules,” but they are, in fact largely not rules, as opposed to personal preferences given the gravity of rules due to time and repetition. Some of these rules — and not just the rules in Elements, which is a fairly simple and non-expansive tome — are not necessary to follow in order to accurately convey meaning. Very rarely does a split infinitive confuse a reader. Ending sentences with a preposition is a throwback to Latin, where sentences could not end with prepositions. I still have trouble letting this one go, but (deep breath) it is okay to end a sentence with a preposition (Hell, half the time when I try to rewrite a sentence to not end in a preposition, the linguistic gymnastics required makes its construction highly awkward).

Am I here to have an academic discussion about grammar rules versus guidelines? Well, no. Not really.

I’m here because of the word “if.”

“If,” as you may or may not know, indicates a conditional statement. “When” does, too, and both are very similar in their usages, but there is a key difference. The difference is that when the outcome of the conditional statement is not guaranteed — for example, whether proper paperwork has been submitted with a formal request — “if” is the proper choice. “When” only applies when the outcome is pretty much guaranteed. There is a difference between “if the appropriate paperwork is included with the request” and “when the appropriate paperwork is included with the request.” That difference is, namely, people regularly do not include the appropriate paperwork in the goddamn request!

So, “if,” am I right?

Apparently not.

The coordinators of this particular project that is giving me some amount of grief have declared war on the word “if.” Their policy is to always replace “if” with “when,” regardless of the proper usage. Now it’s their project, and ultimately, I’ll do whatever they want. If they want “when,” then they’ll just replace it after I submit the documents. I can’t stop that, and other than raising a bit of a grammatically ideological stink, I will let it it go. But it’s wrong. It’s an odd arbitrary choice they are making because, I believe, they feel that corporate-slash-executive types don’t want to see “if.” Because reasons.

Similarly, “should” and “must” are forbidden. Now, these are process documents, and “should” is pretty wishy-washy when outlining a series of steps that one is expected to follow, but “must” has pretty important usages, here. There are more than a few steps that, if not followed, shit will break in very ugly ways. “Must,” usually italicized for emphasis, makes a bit of a point in a stale list of steps. “You must do this because if you don’t, you will destroy sensitive data, wipe out the backups, and kick start the zombie apocalypse.” Yes, if you are following these procedures, you do the steps. But sometimes, it’s well worth throwing in a little extra imperative language. No one is going to be confused by using “must.” Or “if” versus “when.” And in fact, “if/then” is a staple of IT, so I’m more inclined to use that construction.

And that’s what this is about: these arbitrary requirements do little or nothing to improve understanding, and sometimes make it harder to understand. “When the proper paperwork is provided” is great and all, but what if it isn’t?

Which leads back to my original point about the arbitrary nature of some grammar rules (not all of them are arbitrary… if your subject/verb agreement is wrong, you are wrong, and I will cut you). Yes, we writers and editors and language junkies like to be right. We really like to cling to old rules that, in practice, do not hinder understanding. In some instances, the old rules cause misunderstanding because no one uses them anymore. If you’re confused by the sentence “that information is what I based my decision on” because it ends with a preposition, and don’t find “that is the information upon which I based my decision” to be a bit stumbling and awkward… well, you’re probably a grammar nerd (for the record, I like the latter construction… there’s a gravitas about it). But I’m betting that there isn’t a lot of confusion around the first statement.

I eagerly await angry replies from my grammar nerd friends. Bring ’em on!

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