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

Peevery epitomized

The Baltimore Sun

Among the comments on a Grammar Girl post on Facebook about singular they is this exquisite specimen, from one Anthony Tackett:

“One more symptom of the degradation of society. Everyone must do her or his part to combat this. Learn how to use the written language. If it no longer applies to popular culture then, by all means, let's look at updating it. However, changing style-guides to accommodate laziness and ignorance is appalling. Shame on whoever sponsored this edit. And, shame on those who approved the adoption of this laziness.”

Seldom does one find the full panoply of peevery so compactly expressed. Let’s draw it out a little.

Item: The unexamined assumption that society is degrading and that changes in language are a symptom of degradation. We have been on a slide for a considerable time; think of Jonathan Swift’s “Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue,” which argued that English in 1712 (!) was in such a deplorable state that only the establishment of an academy to regulate it could save it from further decay.

Item: The belief that any accommodation to an element of the language that the peever dislikes is indulgence of “laziness and ignorance.” This, one understands, is a class judgment masquerading as a moral judgment. We who use proper English are neither lazy nor ignorant. We have troubled to learn the rules, and anyone who does not is a fit object of public contempt and calls for shaming.

Item: The open assumption that the written language, written standard English is the only correct English, all other dialects of the language being incorrect or corrupt, the product of laziness and ignorance, &c., &c.

Item: The opinion about language stated here so much a reflection of revealed Truth that there is no need to produce any evidence in support of it. Indeed, the classic peever is impervious to evidence and authority. In the thread of comments, when one supporter of singular they points out that English has easily come to accommodate you as either singular or plural, Mr. Tackett produces the astonishing response “I use neither ‘you’ as plural nor ‘they’ in the singular sense, [emphasis added] because it is inaccurate, and incorrect. To suggest that we should just change the lexicon to adjust for ignorance and laziness is pandering to the lowest common denominator, in my opinion.”

That’s a whopper.

Item: And, bonus, another sneer at “pandering to the lowest common denominator,” a refusal to acknowledge that the plain people, with their slang and their laziness, have any role in the language. Never mind that English itself is the product of interaction between generations of illiterate Anglo-Saxon peasants and scarcely literate Normans. Never mind that slang often contributes to the standard language or that common use, not some Platonic essence, determines the meanings of words. (Look at Stan Carey’s post at Sentence first on the curious career of nice.) It’s all irrelevant because we have lowered the portcullis and secreted ourselves in the keep to preserve the One True English from the mutability of the corrupt external world.

Well, you can have it.

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