“Prescriptive rules are among the least interesting things about language,” writes Christopher Johnson in Microstyle: The Art of Writing Little. “They remind me of a scene from the Disney/Pixar animated film Ratatouille, about Remy, a gifted rat who longs to be a gourmet chef.”
His father, who neither understands nor appreciates his aspirations, puts him to work as the rat colony’s official poison sniffer. Though Remy has an uncanny ability to identify subtle ingredients in complex dishes, his job is to detect the mere presence or absence of poison in scraps of scavenged food. His work helps the rat colony but provides none of the joy he gets from cooking.
Johnson says “prescriptivists” or “Cute Curmudgeons” — people who are interested in only policing usage and grammar rules — are “linguistic poison sniffers.” They turn language into “a source of potential embarrassment rather than pleasure.”
Johnson sees his job as getting people to love and appreciate language by being curious about and paying attention to “what makes language delicious.”
This reminded of Olivia Laing’s distinction between identifying poison and finding nourishment.
Everywhere you look these days, there are lots of poison sniffers, but very few cooking a delicious meal…