a convincing – or persuasive – argument?

An email sent around to members of the Editors’ Association of Canada enjoined members to “Convince [a fellow] editor to become a member of EAC,” which sparked a debate among members as to whether “convince” could – or should – be used there rather than “persuade.” It was pointed out that usage guides note that some people find “convince someone to do something” objectionable, but it was also pointed out that the distinction was unfamiliar even to some EAC members. This provoked a response that ignorance of the law is no defense. Which provoked a response from me on the nature of laws of language:

Good golly, miss Molly! In language, rules were made for communication, not communication for rules! The laws of grammar are not like the laws of society! Nobody will chuck you in jail for using a verb with the wrong argument structure – they may look at you funny if they realize you’re speaking wrong, but if it makes no difference to them, no grammar cop will jump out of the bushes and drag you down to the hoosegow.

Our job is to communicate effectively. We have an audience and we need to be aware of how that audience will recieve what we are saying. If that audience does not know, use, or give a damn about a distinction, then there ain’t no distinction, no matter whether we chant it solemnly into the west wind every night at nine. The point of what we do is to communicate effectively. Full stop. If we decide to cling to a rule that most people are not aware of, it needs to have a good justification. There certainly are many such; for instance, the rule for hyphenating compound adjectives before a noun results in much greater clarity. On the other hand, the rule that “fun” can only be a noun has no good excuse for persisting (other than that some people will spit in your eye for using it as an adjective – so be careful around them, and them only); the adjectival form has shades of meaning that other possible words simply don’t offer. And of course words change grammatical categories all the time; conversion is, and always has been, extremely productive in English.

So there is only one question we need to concern ourselves with in the matter of “convince” versus “persuade”, and that is whether maintaining the distinction makes for more effective communication. If our audience knows and maintains a distinction between the two words, then it does (and if they do, there is the question of whether they accept “convince him to do it,” and then whether they find a distinction between “convince him to do it” and “persuade him to do it”). If they don’t, we need to look at whether in fact there is value in maintaining the distinction for that audience.

I really, really hope everyone here actually knows that usage guides are not legislation. They are things that tell us why we use certain things and avoid others and why we should use certain things and avoid others – what will have what effect and why. They are written on the basis of observation of the usages of well-educated standard users – the people who are thought to speak “good English.” When the English spoken by those people changes, or when the set of people who are reference speakers changes, the guides need to change, too, but there is certainly some inertia. They can on occasion be lamentably behind the times. They can describe distinctions that are maintained by an ardent three percent of the population, thought of no consequence by another twelve percent and not known at all by another eighty-five percent of the population. And when that’s the case, it’s our business to know it’s so and to know which segment of the population we’re aiming for and what effect we want to have on them (if, for instance, we know that many of them don’t know a distinction but we want them to know it, then we have a reason for maintaining that distinction as obviously as possible; we don’t need to capitulate to ignorance, but we do need to have a good reason for pushing rules our audience doesn’t know, and “it says so here” is not actually a good enough reason by itself). That’s what we’re paid for. Not to doggedly enforce rules that not only mean nothing to our audience but may even impede our communication with them.

Now, in the case of the persuade/convince question, the audience is members of the EAC. So the question then is whether it’s more effective to use “convince them to do it” – which for some readers will sound better than “persuade” because it implies that they will do it because they really want to, not because they’ve been badgered into it, for others will make no difference, and for some will wave a red flag – or whether it’s more effective to use “persuade them to do it.” It’s a bit of a numbers game.

But there is no one single right English. There is no one single unitary audience of English speakers who always speak the same way in all circumstances and know and maintain all the rules. If you tell a joke that your audience doesn’t laugh at, it doesn’t matter if another audience was rolling in the aisles; you flopped. And if you use English that doesn’t communicate to your audience, then you’ve flopped, no matter what Bernstein, Johnson, or Chicago say.

In response to a further comment, I added this:

Now, the guides are good information, and the fact that something is in the guide means that it is known to, and considered important by, some proportion of the literate members of the population. The guides also generally give good justifications for maintaining certain distinctions. But we do nonetheless need to recognize that sometimes the guides are a bit behind the curve. We shouldn’t ignore them just on the basis of our own knowledge; there are things we manage not to know that quite a lot of other people do know, and the guides are good for informing us of those. But when we find out that the clear majority of our readers understand a certain point of usage differently from how the guides say it is, then we have to ask whether we should – and can – enforce the distinction in the guide.

I can find guides that will tell me that I should never use “fun” as an adjective. That tells me that some people think that to be an inviolable rule. But if I do a survey of usage, and consider my own sense as it has developed in my cultural context over time, and consider what justification there may be for allowing or disallowing the adjectival use of “fun”, I may well come to the conclusion that “fun” is widely used as an adjective, that disallowing such usage only reduces the expressive potential of English, and that resistance to its usage is due principally to shibboleth thinking and resistance to change. And so I will use “fun” as an adjective in defiance of the guide, knowing that a few readers will turn purple at it – but those same few will be almost certain to find fault somewhere with something no matter what. And I will feel that I have acted to improve, not degrade, the language.

All of which comes back to whether disallowing “convince to” comunicates more effectively with readers, and whether allowing it in some way improves – or degrades – the language. The usage manuals will tell us that some users consider it unacceptable; the better usage manuals will explain just why it is thought so, and why others think it acceptable. And then we have to make a judgement about our audience, preferably a well-informed judgement. No need to go by the seats of our pants. There’s plenty of information out there; we can do analyses of usage in similar texts for similar audiences, for instance. (I talked about this in my presentation at the Edmonton EAC conference, www.harbeck.ca/James/harbeck_flavour.html)

I’d be inclined to say that, for this particular document, “convince to” turns out to have been an excellent choice for an entirely heuristic reason – it has sparked a very interesting thread on the list! (As Machiavelli wrote, “Si guarda al fine” – consider the results.)

2 responses to “a convincing – or persuasive – argument?

  1. Going off at a slight tangent, I’d be inclined to “encourage”, rather than “convince” or “persuade”, both of which imply aggressive pursuit of the goal, telemarketer-style …

  2. I note that Arnold Zwicky has given an excellent (of course) analysis of this issue in his blog, at http://arnoldzwicky.wordpress.com/2009/01/16/zombie-rules-ii-convince/ .

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