Arrant Pedantry

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Arrant Pedantry

When you study and work with language for a living, a lot of people naturally assume that you’re some sort of scowling, finger-wagging pedant who is secretly keeping a list of all the grammatical and usage errors they make. It’s difficult to make people understand that you only correct errors when you’re on the clock, and even then you sometimes do it grudgingly because that’s what the style guide says, not necessarily because you believe you’re actually improving the text. It’s even harder to make people understand that what you’re really interested in is understanding how language works, not telling people that they’re using the language wrong or that they’re somehow lacking or inferior because they split an infinitive and dangled a participle.

The problem is that too many people have had bad experiences with just such language pedants, the Miss Thistlebottoms of the world. Now, I have to say that I do believe that there should be standards in the language and that they should be taught to students and followed by writers and editors (when appropriate).

The problem is that the standards in English are too often defined or enforced by people who apparently pull rules out of thin air. These grammatical fussbudgets aren’t interested in a standard based on the usage of educated speakers and writers; rather, they seem to prefer rules that set them apart from the unwashed masses, that give them a reason to judge and condemn. The Elements of Style is their bible, Strunk and White are their prophets, and they sneer down their noses at those not of their faith. The objective, empirical truth of English usage is of no interest to them; they have faith in their false gospel of grammar.

Why do these grammar nazis bother me so? For a lot of reasons, actually. First of all, because a lot of people assume that I’m one of them, and that is simply not true. I was never much of a grammar nazi even when I was new to the field of editing; I favored the spirit of the law over the letter of the law. I still enjoy editing, and I have some very good friends who are excellent editors, but too many people in that profession are either incompetent or tyrannical (or likely both).

Second, I have a strong respect for the truth. Most grammaristos will believe whatever falsehoods they happened to hear in their English classes. If an English teacher tells them that it’s always wrong to split an infinitive, to strand a preposition, or to use they with a singular antecedent, they will unquestioningly accept it as gospel truth, no matter how nonsensical it may be. Any rational person could do a little research and find all three of those “rules” broken by virtually all the finest English writers of the last several centuries. You’d think this would be enough to convince them that such rules are faulty, but the grammar pedants will usually respond with a retort like “Just because Shakespeare made mistakes doesn’t make it alright.” You simply can’t argue with people like that.

And as if those rules weren’t ridiculous enough, there are teachers in the world who tell their students that it’s outright wrong to use the final serial comma or to use the subordinator that when it could be omitted. These sorts of rules only serve to teach students that English is a difficult, frustrating subject that doesn’t make sense. These students then spend the rest of their lives fearing anyone in a position of grammatical authority and believing that many of their natural tendencies in the language are probably wrong.

When people are blindly stupid about grammar and usage, it makes me angry, but when people have been cowed into believing that no matter what they do, they’re always going to get it wrong, it just makes me sad. There’s something seriously wrong with the way English grammar is taught today. At some point the system was taken over by people who favored literary analysis over any sort of teaching of the principles of the language, so what little grammar is being taught is fundamentally flawed because no one has taken the time to learn it properly before they attempt to teach it to others. It’s a subject that’s been highly abused, and too often it’s used for abusive purposes.

Unfortunately, I have no idea what the solution is. I may not be a grammar nazi, but neither am I a grammar anarchist. All I know is that I don’t like the way things are, and I think it’s time for a change.

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I Am Not an English Major

I am not an English major. It’s true that I used to be—I’m not disputing that. But I’m not anymore, even though my new major doesn’t really sound different. I’m an English language major. There’s a subtle yet profound difference there. Some keen and discerning people recognize that there’s a difference, but even then they don’t always catch on to what it is. I’m not learning English as a second language—I already speak it fluently, thanks. Nor am I learning how to teach English as a second language—if that’s what I wanted to do, I’d get a TESOL (teaching English to speakers of other languages) minor.

So what exactly is my major? Well, like the name says, I study the English language. Not its literature, but the actual language itself—cool stuff like grammar and usage and phonology and semantics and the history of the language. I can tell you everything about the Great Vowel Shift and what separates Old English from Modern English (for starters, Shakespeare is not Old English).

Why am I so frustrated that I have to explain all of this? It’s because people often ask my wife and me what our majors are (hers is English), and they almost invariably respond, “Oh, so you’re both English majors.” Well, no, not really. Our majors have exactly one required class in common. It’s true that we’re both editors and devout word nerds, but our fields of study are quite different. The English major focuses on literature and writing, whereas the English language major focuses on linguistics.

Okay, I know what you’re thinking. This is all thoroughly fascinating, but what’s the point? Isn’t this just another one of those fluffy humanities majors that don’t prepare you for the real world? What in the world do you actually do with a degree in English language, anyway? Flip burgers? I certainly hope not. Go on to law school? Ugh. No way. Teach high school? Not a chance. Don’t get me wrong—I’ve got tons of respect for teachers, but I decided a long time ago that teaching wasn’t for me, and I’ve gotten tired of people asking, “So, are you going to be a teacher?” It was an annoying question when I was still an English major (and thus had more of a chance of teaching high school), but it’s a far more annoying question now that I’m an English language major (and thus have zero chance of teaching high school). They want someone to teach literature and writing and that sort of thing, not someone who can explain to students the difference between a punctual and a durative verb or the phonological and grammatical changes that separate the Germanic languages from the rest of the Indo-European language family.

Instead, I am going into the wonderful world of editing. Not just proofreading or typo-fixing: editing. I fix things like bad organization, grammatical errors, poor wording, and stylistic issues. I am the mechanic that fixes those funny squeals and clunks and keeps things running smoothly. I am the midwife that makes sure the words are delivered without any problems. I am the security guard that pats down suspicious-looking sentences and confiscates their contraband grammar. I am the janitor that cleans up authors’ messes, messes that they’re perfectly capable of cleaning up themselves, but they don’t bother because they know I’ll take care of it. I am the guy you complain about and gloat over in absentia every time you find the typo that slipped through. I am the guy who will likely never get his name on a book cover, no matter how much he works on that book.

That last thought depresses me sometimes. I might never be published. I might never see my name in print. I might never write anything that will be of value to anyone but me. But is that so bad? Do I have to be a writer to be valued? Is it true that those who can’t write, edit? I really don’t think so. I like what I do. I’m good at it. And if no one ever quite understands just what it is I do, I should take it as a compliment, for that is the curse of the editor: when we do our jobs well, no one even knows we are there.

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In the Defense of English

I have always felt that English is a good language. I’m probably fairly biased when it comes to this subject, but I don’t care. English is a colorful and versatile language that readily accepts new borrowings, coinages, and idioms. Its grammar is simple and its vocabulary is broad. It’s also the most influential and widely spoken language in the world at the moment.

So why are we still so infatuated with Latin?

It’s not that I hate Latin; unlike some people, I don’t know it well enough to hate it. But I do know enough to know that Latin has been one of the greatest blessings and worst curses that the English language has ever seen. As you probably know, Latin was the language of scholarship for many years. This led to a huge influx of new words that greatly expanded English vocabulary. Unfortunately, Latin’s great prestige made English look backwards and barbaric by comparison.

The beauty of Latin was in its well-established rules. English—and any other language—was a mess of dialects and differing usages and pronunciations. Of course, the only reason Latin’s rules were so well-established is that it was long dead and fossilized by that time. There were no Latin dialects anymore because those dialects had evolved into full-fledged languages.

The result of this is that Latin rules were often imposed on English by grammarians seeking to turn English into a more enlightened tongue. The worst of these was Bishop Lowth, who took it upon himself to create an English pedagogical grammar textbook. Nearly two hundred fifty years later, we are still stuck with some of his infamous rules, including the prohibitions against split infinitives and ending sentences with prepositions—rules that were based on Latin grammar. Ironically, in his own words, he opposed “forcing the English under the rules of a foreign language.”1

The damage done by Latin didn’t end there. Latin words may have enriched English vocabulary, but many of these borrowings were duplicates of English words. The Latin (and French) borrowings took on an elevated status, while the English doublets became cruder by comparison. Consider the following pairs: kingly and regal, house and mansion, heavenly and celestial, get and obtain. The first word in each pair is English, while the second is Latin or French. In each case the Latinate word is loftier. But why? Is Latin intrinsically better? Absolutely not. The Romans may have built an advanced empire, but it was not because their language was any better than the languages of the Gauls or Iberians or Germanic tribes.

More than fifteen hundred years after the fall of Rome, we still consider Romance languages to be beautiful and Germanic languages to be ugly. I say that anyone who believes this has never heard passages of Beowulf read aloud in authentic Old English. The Anglo-Saxons knew how to do things right; when translating from Latin, if they encountered a word that didn’t have an English equivalent, they made one up from English roots. And why shouldn’t they? English was just as legitimate a language as Latin, a language of poetry and scholarship.

I think that in many ways, we’ve forgotten and abandoned the roots of our language. Millions of people still study Latin, but how many study Old English? How many people think that got is just as good as obtained? The sad thing is, most people probably don’t even realize that they’re neglecting their native tongue; they’re too busy falling in love with silly words like defenestrate. Well, let me tell you something: there’s an English word for that, too, and it’s to throw out a window, which is what I’ll want to do next time someone tries to tell me that Latin is better than English.

1 A Short Introduction to English Grammar, 107