Wednesday, November 14, 2012

A Field Guide to the Wild Peevologist

I just discovered this blog today (I claimed it in the name of This Is So Gay), and began going through earlier posts before I found this one on the descriptivist / prescriptivist controversy, centering on Henry Hitching's book The Language Wars.  The blogger, Jan Freeman, points to a New York Times blog post by John McWhorter, who tries to stake out a middle ground between descriptivists and prescriptivists:
We can teach people which forms of English are acceptable without thinking of the more colloquial phrases and words as errors. Rather, what is considered proper English is, like so much else, a matter of fashion.
Those who ignore rules of fashion exercise little influence in society, whether we like it or not. But we wouldn’t see someone wearing breeches or petticoats as mentally ungifted, and the same should go for the person who, as millions of English speakers do every day year round, uses they in the singular as in Tell each student that they can hand the paper in until 4.
Freeman agrees, stressing the etiquette metaphor over the fashion metaphor by citing the journalist and blogger John McIntyre:
A perfectly grammatical published sentence, he notes, can amount to “a breach of manners, because etiquette requires consideration of the other party, and this sentence shows no such consideration to the reader.”  That’s a criterion that will always be relevant, however fashions in usage may change.  
I wrote about Hitchings earlier this year, and made some similar points. But I disagree with McWhorter, McIntyre and Freeman on the etiquette thing.  We're all closer to each other, I admit, than any of us is to Joan Acocella, whose sloppy and ignorant review of The Language Wars Freeman criticized.  But as a critical reader of Miss Manners, I know that throwing a tantrum over someone else's etiquette gaffe is thoroughly and unacceptably rude; so are the tantrums thrown by prescriptivists. McIntyre distances himself from prescriptivist
cranks and snobs, and I am loath to be identified with, say, Clark Elder Morrow, whose uninformed railings against the OED are just sad; or David Bentley Hart, who has argued (I am not making this up, you know) that prescriptivism is morally superior to descriptivism; or Mark Halpern, who is writing admiringly in the Vocabula Review about Dwight Macdonald's attacks on Webster's Third, evidently unaware that the battle was lost half a century ago and that Macdonald's fulminations merely look hilarious today.

So please do not number me among that gaggle of self-named paragons of civilization peddling what Henry Hitchings calls in The Language Wars "bogus rules, superstitions, half-baked logic, groaningly unhelpful lists, baffling abstract statements, false classifications, contemptuous insiderism and educational malfeasance."
Hitching came close to this when he wrote that "proscriptivists" would be a better label than "prescriptivists."  Just look at the comments on McWhorter's post, for example. McIntyre goes on to paint himself as a kinder, gentler prescriptivist, and he even admits: "To be fair to descriptivists, they aren't saying otherwise, merely that standard written English is not the only legitimate form of the language, and not one that is suitable for all people on all occasions." Just so. I think I was closer to truth when I argued that a descriptivist will tell you that certain forms and words and constructions are appropriate when talking to certain people -- when to use tu and when to use Usted in Spanish, for example -- and if you want to get along in a given language, you must know these conventions.

What a descriptivist -- this descriptivist, anyhow -- won't do is grant that people who don't know or can't master certain styles of language use are inferior beings, and those who can are superior, decent people who are entitled, even obligated, to humiliate their inferiors and then cackle about it gleefully.  As a recovering grammar neurotic myself, I've decided to channel my neurosis into correcting only the errors of prescriptivists -- and they make many of them.  This is why I part company with McWhorter when he writes, "Those who ignore rules of fashion exercise little influence in society, whether we like it or not."  First, the parallel to fashion breaks down here: how much influence on all of American society do fashion elites -- the designers, the catwalk fashion shows -- actually exercise? They're off in a world of their own, if they think their bubble is The World.  Second, most people who are pounced on by proscriptivists don't "ignore" rules of grammar: they don't know them, and their schooling was arranged so as not to teach them.  Third, in the long run the efforts of the proscriptivists are vain, their influence less than those they attack and mock.  Like King Canute, they can't stop the tide of language change from rolling in, and they are unaware that the "proper" English they speak was yesterday's improper English.  But, finally, whatever influence proscriptivists do have in society, they don't deserve it and their claims to superiority, let alone their contempt for what they consider the lower orders, should not be tolerated.  Whether you accept the etiquette analogy or the fashion analogy, their behavior shows their inferiority.