Arrant Pedantry

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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.

6 Responses to I Am Not an English Major

  1. Katya says:

    I’ve had similar problems with people not understanding what it means to be a linguistics major. They tend to think it’s the same as speaking a lot of languages. (Although that is one of the definitions of “linguist,” that’s not what linguistics as a field of study is about.) It also doesn’t help that linguistics curricula vary widely from school to school, so one person’s linguistics degree may reflect a strikingly different body of knowledge from another person’s.

    I have to say I’m surprised that the English and ELang majors have so little overlap. I wonder how much ELang overlaps with linguistics?

  2. Jon Boy says:

    The field of linguistics also has the problem of having a lot of subfields. Someone studying cognitive linguistics may have an entirely different course of study from someone studying historical linguistics.

    The Elang and linguistics majors have a few electives in common, but the subject matter overlaps more than that. For the most part they’ve created new English-centric classes for the Elang major.

  3. Katya says:

    I wonder if they let you do a double major in Linguistics and ELang? I would think not, but if none of the classes overlap . . . (Of course, I’d go nuts if I had to take a usage class. Are there any required usage classes?)

    Would you say that linguistics has a lot of subfields or that it’s interdisciplinary? You could argue that English has a lot of subfields, in that two randomly selected professors of English are likely to have very different emphases, but those areas still aren’t likely to be closely related to any other disciplines, excepting maybe history. (Or linguistics.)

    Linguistics, on the other hand, relates to aspects of physics, anatomy, psychology, neurology, education, computer science, artificial intelligence, information science, child development, literature, etc., etc.

  4. Jon Boy says:

    Deja vu. Have you asked before whether they’d let you double-major in linguistics and English language? I personally know of no reason why (generic) you couldn’t, but the required usage class might have kept (Katya) you from doing so.

    I’d say that linguistics has a lot of subfields and is very interdisciplinary, if such a thing is possible. There seems to be a continuum shading from subfields like phonology to more interdisciplinary fields like speech pathology and the acoustics of speech.

    Of course, this is all coming from someone who wasn’t a linguistics major.

  5. I really like your English blog. Just so you know. I’m adding it to my RSS reader. 🙂

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