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Wells of English defiled

Write about language, as about climate change or evolution, and what do you get? A strident chorus of denial. I wonder why.

Last week Tom Chivers wrote about English grammar at The Telegraph, patiently explaining why a good deal of what has been taught about grammar is unsound and what linguists, Geoffrey Pullum in particular, have discovered in examining how we speak and write. ("Are grammar Nazis ruining the English language?" was an unfortunate headline, overstating the case and using the inflammatory Nazi, but we'll pass on.)

Naturally, the comments filled up with rubbish (probably bollocks would be the preferable British term). "You can't keep changing word meanings on a whim and kowtowing to the ignorant who use words wrong, and then expect that good communication will happen" is typical. And very quickly prejudices about language turn out to be fused with other prejudices, as in the comment resenting attempts "to intimidate those of us who are genuinely British and have lived and worked here all our lives, not just arrived with our hands held out to readily accept benefits and all the other trappings available to those who have not earned it." 

For some, Spenser's "well of English undefiled" is always being polluted. 

Writing later at Language Log, Professor Pullum evaluated the comments thus: "Discussion seemed to be dominated by an army of nutballs who often hadn't read the article. They seemed to want (i) a platform from which to assert some pre-formed opinion about grammar, or (ii) a chance to insult someone who had been the subject of an article, or (iii) an opportunity to publicly beat up another commenter."

As is so often the case, the liberating openness of Internet discussion turns out to resemble an argument about sports terms among people who have had too much to drink as last call nears. 

I've been musing about what lies beneath all the fury. 

Perhaps the simplest explanation is the phenomenon labeled mumpsimus. People are disposed to stick with what they have come to think of as stable knowledge, and the more it is explained to them that they are mistaken, the more they cling to error. 

You saw that in the comical brouhaha over the Associated Press Stylebook's abandonment of the bogus over/more than distinction. Peter Sokolowski, writing at Merriam-Webster.com, summed up the issue with his typical acuity: "A decision like this, from an important style guide, comes as a jolt and a reminder that language conventions change. Even if this particular convention was never grammatically necessary, its consistent use was taken as an indicator of careful professionalism. And that’s what this is really all about: the AP’s announcement affects the profession of editing; it does not alter English grammar. All skilled professions set standards that separate their members from amateurs, and that’s how it should be. The interest over this announcement expresses an anxiety that the need for the specialized skills of good copyeditors is what is being eroded. That is an understandable reaction, but a needless one: clarity of expression is as necessary as it is difficult and rare. We need the professionals. We just don’t need artificial rules that do not promote the goal of clarity."

Writing with clarity and precision does not come easily; it requires years of application. So the anxiety of copy editors over changes in what were thought to be stable rules of usage is perfectly understandable. And it connects to a broader phenomenon of middle-class status anxiety. 

Those of us in the trade know that when we identify ourselves as copy editors, we can expect the response, "I'd better watch my language." That is, "I am afraid that I might betray a level of ignorance that will expose me to ridicule and imperil my precarious grip on the social ladder." What generations of pedagogy* have accomplished is to leave native speakers of English anxious and uncertain about using their own language.

These anxieties have a political dimension as well. The language we speak is at the core of our identities; those of us who have spent any time in a non-English-speaking country have experienced the sense of disorientation and helplessness the accompanies being adrift in an alien language.

Thus you get all the attempts to legislate English as an official language, to construct a legal moat, keep, and portcullis against the alien hordes, even though the perceived threat is largely imaginary.  

It does not have to be thus. We do not have to be prisoners of defective educations and misguided instructions. There are people like Mr. Chivers and Professor Pullum writing intelligently and informatively about language. There are the writers and resources repeatedly cited in these posts. If you are serious about English usage, buy a copy of Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage; it will be one of the smartest purchases you ever made. You do not have to truckle to ignoramuses (readers, writers, or bosses**) or dumb down texts to dodge criticism frpm those who hold stubbornly to superstitions. 

It's your language, too. If you want to apply it to dog-whistle editing (thank you, Ruth Walker), I can't stop you, though I fear that you are simply wasting valuable time over trifles. If you want to be informed, the better to achieve the clarity and precision you aspire to, it is within your grasp. 

 

 

*This time I'll put the Henry Hitchings quotation in a note rather than the main text. “The history of prescriptions about English ... is in part a history of bogus rules, superstitions, half-baked logic, groaningly unhelpful lists, baffling abstract statements, false classifications, contemptuous insiderism and educational malfeasance."

 

**Well, maybe bosses. 


Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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