Judging but not judgmental

In the interview broadcast on WYPR this morning, Maryland Morning’s Sheilah Kast asked me a very good question about my dismissal of language peeving: Isn’t it important to take language seriously and make judgments? I fumbled for an answer* and have been thinking about the point ever since.

Of course we must make judgments in writing. We have to determine what is appropriate for the subject, the publication, and the audience. We decide what degree of formality or informality is appropriate, what level of diction is apt. We choose between long sentences and short, between Latinate periodic sentences and looser branching sentences. Syntax and vocabulary are our tools, and we make constant and subtle judgments about how to apply them to the job.

The judgments of peevers, however, are of a different class, because, rather than determine what is appropriate in context, of even distinguish between what is important and what is not, they universalize personal preferences.

As I said to Ms. Kast, we all make judgments about the way people write and talk, just as we make judgments about the way they dress. Those judgments reflect our personal likes and dislikes. He’s wearing brown shoes with a blue suit. I wouldn’t have done that. She says “like” as a place-filler in speech once every half a dozen words. Uh-uh, I’m not going to do that. Nobody is going to get me out in public wearing plaid pants or a baseball cap turned backwards (except maybe to win a bet). Nobody is going to hear me say nuculur.

We all make these internal observations and judgments, which are, in addition to being inevitable, largely harmless. What peevers do that looks illegitimate to me is to mistake personal tastes (some of them rising from unsound views about the language) for moral superiority: “I do not use the apostrophe to make common nouns plural, so I am well-educated and you are a moron. I do not say ekscape, and because you do, you are a barbarian.”

What is at the root of this is not moral superiority but status-conscious snobbery. “My mastery of these shibboleths of language usage marks me as a member of an embattled literate minority, a defender of civilization. You failure to meet my standards marks you as a member of the unlettered class, the mob, the rabble, the canaille. (Yes, I know French, too.)”

But I had my fill of pretense, both observing it and expressing it, during my years as a graduate student in English. Now, because I have real work to do as an editor, and a full plate of it, I don’t burden myself with regulating the way other people talk or write, unless they engage me professionally.

Peeving is a waste of time. And unless someone has issued you a badge or empowered you to make citizen’s arrests, you would do well to let it alone.

*God above, how can you people stand to listen to me?

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