Language folklore

The Baltimore Sun

After writing about people’s baseless objections to colloquial usages such as could care less and irregardless, and after viewing comments at various discussion sites, I was reminded afresh how many literate, educated adults, writers and editors among them, appear not to understand how language works.

 This can be seen, for example, at The New Yorker, which, though as well-written and well-edited a publication as one can find, published Joan Acocella’s obtuse review of Henry Hitchings’s The Language Wars, an article that came under heavy fire here, at Language Log, and elsewhere.

I see people operating from what could be called, for lack of a better term, language folklore, much of it derived from defective or half-remembered pedagogy. If you will indulge me, I’d like to draw together a few threads of it.

Item: I occasionally tangle with people who imagine that standard written American English (or standard written British English) is the One True English, all other forms being degenerate or corrupt. This is what the British call grasping the wrong end of the stick, because it distorts people’s view of the language. Speech is primary, and standard written English is a specialized dialect, learned in schools for employment in business, law, journalism, government, and the professions.

Nonstandard or colloquial English is not “bad English,” not wrong, not corrupt, but just a different dialect of English. It does look out of place in formal writing, which is a misjudgment of register. But thinking of it as “bad English” permits dismissing the people who speak and write it as “lazy,” “sloppy,” “uneducated,” “illiterate.” Significantly, these are some of the same words that prejudiced people use to describe the poor. (We’ll get back to the social aspect later.)

Item: Another aspect of the folklore is that nonstandard usages are wrong, are errors of usage. They are instead different usages. People who use irregardless know what they mean by it, and you know damn well what they mean by it too. It don’t make me no never mind when I hear colloquial speech, and you know what I meant there as well.

Errors are the things I correct every day at the paragraph factory: typographical errors, failure of subject-verb agreement in standard written English, confusion of homonyms. Actual errors are the mistakes that non-native speakers make before they have mastered, say, the order of adjectives.

Item: One recurring element of folklore is the belief that English should be logical—the reason some people object to could care less. But anyone who has thought about English orthography for as much as a nanosecond knows that it isn’t logical. If English were logical, it would not have a pack of words such as sanction, cleave, and dust, which have opposite meanings.

Languages also abound in idioms, expressions whose meaning is not conveyed by the literal words. Could care less is an idiom in U.S. English that means the same things as couldn’t care less, which is also an idiom. If I tell you that I am tickled to death, I mean that I am pleased, I am delighted, I am chuffed; I do not mean that I have been tortured until my heart stopped. The double negatives in I don’t get no satisfaction do not constitute a positive. English ain’t algebra.

Item: Perhaps the most insidious consequence of embracing language folklore is the belief that it makes one a better person. Mind you, formal written English is a prestige dialect, indispensible for employment and advancement in many fields, and you may certainly congratulate yourself for the long labor of mastering it. But it does not make you morally superior, and it does not entitle you to indulge in snobbery, bolstering your own social status and condescending to those who use different dialects of English.

Let’s also ease up on the “fingers on the chalkboard” pretense that a handful of words or usages we happen to dislike cause us physical pain and mental anguish when we encounter them. Have a glass of wine.

As some one who was a dreadful language snob as an undergraduate and graduate student, I know it when I see it. (I have since lightened up.) It is simply bad manners to sneer at other people’s usage, and you should be better than that.

On the other hand: There are indeed targets that merit your scorn: turgid prose, bureaucratic prose, obfuscation, academic prose, pretentious writing. If the Associated Press Styleboook, persists in using its authority to promote bogus advice on usage, then it’s due for a drubbing. People who set themselves up as authorities and purvey nonsense should be called on it.  

Have at them.

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