Steer clear of the purity people

I used to think of myself as a purist about language but have come to see that as dangerous. Look at the Purity People around and decide whether you wanted to be numbered among that lot.

In the Republican Party, the tea party crowd is on the alert for incipient deviationism, and people whom we have always thought of as conservative (people like Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who has spent the past five years expertly thwarting President Obama) are facing primary challenges. It's hard not to think of the Jacobins, who, having run through the available artistocrats, commenced to dispatching one another to the guillotine. 

Conservative American Roman Catholics, The Washington Post tells us today, are nervous about Pope Francis. Though he explicitly upholds orthodox doctrine, a few anodyne comments about treating the less orthodox as if they were also human beings leave some fretting that he is damned close to heretical. (Perhaps they will sic the Dominicans on him.)  

And in my own sphere, English usage, the Purity Party can be equally off-putting, as Bronwen Clune wrote last month in a Guardian article, "My problem with the grammar police": At its essence it is old-fashioned classism and elitism, and it can be unapologetically so. Is it right to shut people down and exclude them from the conversation because of their lack of exposure to or understanding of the rules of grammar?"

Going on about grammar and usage offers tempting opportunities to parade one's expertise and use it to sneer at the less adept. It's as if a concert pianist were not content enough with his craft but had to go about showing up amateurs fumbling at the ivories. 

And, as with the Jacobins, one winds up in a tighter and tighter circle of purity, ultimately becoming irrelevant to the larger world of growing and ramifying vocabulary and usage. Do you want to make music or just give yourself airs? 

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