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What's Wrong with "Wrong"?

Rosie Right

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Jeffrey McQuain, editor of the newsletter Copy Editor, says clearly what Rosie has often tried to express. Mr. McQuain has given Rosie permission to reproduce his column "What's Wrong with 'Wrong.'" It follows:

"I knew I was in trouble when the message arrived from the University of Iowa's linguistics department.

"'You say,' begins Prof. Robert S. Wachal ominously, "that the use of the reflexive pronoun 'myself' as the object of the preposition 'between' is wrong.'

"'While it is my stylistic preference to use a plain objective pronoun,' Professor Wachal continues, 'a check of Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage shows the reflexive to have been used by the following writers: the translator of King James in Exodus, Congreve, Dr. Johnson, Jane Austen, Thackeray, Emily Dickinson, Alexander Wollcott, James Thurber and T. S. Eliot.'

"The professor concludes, 'It really angers me when a stylistic choice, even a bad one, is declared wrong!'

"Not long before, I had received this complaint from another reader: 'I assume that when you receive a question with a grammatical error, it is your policy to correct it. If it isn't your policy, it should be, as we don't want to teach the wrong thing.'

"I was attacked from both sides about the same issue, and the only common ground in those two complaints was the world wrong.

"Welcome to the war of words.

"On one side is the descriptive front, urged on by the professor and those who want all language to be accepted without judgment. On the other side is the prescriptive front, ready to attack any and all perceived errors of English. Can you guess which side includes the copy editor?

"Of course, we are the prescriptivists, and many of us are shaking our heads at a descriptive world in which it's increasingly unpopular to use the word 'wrong.' (I value the overly permissive Dictionary of English Usage as a reference, but I also know that it contains a similar list of writers who used 'it's for 'its.') The replacement of 'me' with 'myself' may have been popular in the past, but today that 'stylistic preference' is wrong, wrong, wrong.

"Will it stay that way? Probably not, because language does change, as the descriptivists love to remind the prescriptivists.

"But our prescriptive job is to resist that change, to make new words struggle for their acceptance and to be ready to apply the word 'wrong' whenever the copy we edit violates modern rules of style and usage.

"That's what we do. We may not always agree on those rules, but there is one thing that every copy editor knows for sure: we're all in the 'wrong'

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