You Don't Say John E. McIntyre writes about language, usage, journalism & arbitrarily chosen subjects.

Grammar and morality are not a good mix

The Baltimore Sun

Writing at the Macmillan Dictionary Blog, Stan Carey takes a look at the checkered history of invite as a noun: stubbornly persistent since the seventeenth century but never receiving an acceptance greater than a grudging acknowledgement as a colloquialism. Never invited into the parlor.

He concludes: “We can acknowledge all this without lambasting the word as a ‘needless barbarism’, as one critic did. Can we omit needless accusations of barbarity? That’s my invite to the critics.”

“Barbarism” gets thrown around a lot when English grammar and usage come up. I’ve given up trying to reason in a discussion elsewhere with a gentleman who likes to refer to the way the “ignorant masses” use language.

Let’s go over this again. Standard English—standard written English, standard formal written English—is one dialect of English. It happens to be the prestige dialect, the one you are expected to master for a career in academia, law, government, corporate business. The other registers and dialects of English have distinct vocabularies and sometimes their own grammar. We usually understand them perfectly well, even if they are not to our taste.

Mastering standard English is a skill, usually requiring years of schooling, and you are entitled to take pride in the accomplishment. But don’t preen yourself overmuch, or claim moral superiority because you are a master of what you may call “proper” English. A pianist can play the Bach French Suites and you cannot, because she has mastered a skill you do not have. Does that make her morally superior to you? The electrician who rewires your house has mastered a complex technic that is beyond you. Is he thus a better person?

Mastering the prestige dialect does not confer moral superiority, only social superiority. When you begin to carry on about barbarism, usages that afflict you “like nails on the chalkboard,” or the way the “ignorant masses” speak and write, you are not a better human being, a more moral person, a more sensitive and civilized sort. You are just a damn snob.

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