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It's the middle-class linguistic morality

In Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, Alfred Doolittle comes into an income of four thousand a year and finds himself trapped in middle-class morality.

Formerly of the undeserving poor, he was free to live as he liked, understanding that both the undeserving poor and the aristocracy can live free of constraints. For one, he never married Eliza's mother, just as the upper classes freely conduct their liaisons.

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And he understands the mechanism of middle-class morality, embarrassment enforced by shame. "It's easy to say chuck it; but I havnt the nerve. Which of us has? We're all intimidated. Intimidated, maam: thats what we are. … They've got you every way you turn: it's a choice between the Skilly of the workhouse and the Char Bydis of the middle class; and I havnt the nerve for the workhouse."

There is as well a middle-class linguistic morality.

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Lord Peter Wimsey can use ain't, as did the rural companions of my youth, but schoolteachers must suppress it so that students can rise in the world, at least into the middle class.

Paul Fussell's delightful book Class has a set of class markers for American language, much like the "U" and "non-U" categories of Nancy Mitford's Noblesse Oblige. The American middle class, for example, lives in a home not a house: "(1) the middle class loves to use words that have achieved cliché status in advertising; (2) the middle class, like the real estate con men, also enjoys the comforting fantasy that you can purchase love, comfort, warmth, etc., with cold cash, or at least achieve them by some formula or other; (3) the middle class, by nature both puritanical and terrified of public opinion, welcomed home because, to its dirty mind, house carried bad associations."

The middles class, he says, will say cocktails where their betters will say drinks; purchase rather than buy, utilize rather than use.

Linguistic shaming is rampant online, where minor slips—it's for its, me for I, their-they're-there confusion—are relentlessly mocked by those who have mastered the tricky English tongue and its dodgy spelling. The language in which this mockery is conducted is significant. The people who utter or write these solecisms are lazy; they could get it right if they just bestirred themselves. They are uneducated or illiterate, for which read stupid. And they are uncouth. They are the same categories by which the well-off write off the poor.

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The purpose is less to educate than to intimidate. And many of the sticklers themselves are intimidated, uncertain, anxious—the American middle class being one summons to the boss's office away from penury—and they cling to whatever precarious sense of superiority they can latch onto.

My own view is that shaming should be reserved for the deserving. I don't quite understand why people who write about home décor for newspapers have trouble distinguishing mantel and mantle, an error I have to correct nearly every week; but if they are going to set themselves up as authorities and arbiters of taste, then their pretensions ought to be exposed.

Just so with writers on grammar and usage who espouse crackpot views. You know who you are.

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