Arrant Pedantry

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Lynne Truss and Chicken Little

Lynne Truss, author of the bestselling Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, is at it again, crying with her characteristic hyperbole and lack of perspective that the linguistic sky is falling because she got a minor bump on the head.

As usual, Truss hides behind the it’s-just-a-joke-but-no-seriously defense. She starts by claiming to have “an especially trivial linguistic point to make” but then claims that the English language is doomed, and it’s all linguists’ fault. According to Truss, linguists have sat back and watched while literacy levels have declined—and have profited from doing so.

What exactly is the problem this time? That some people mistakenly write some phrases as compound words when they’re not, such as maybe for may be or anyday for any day. (This isn’t even entirely true; anyday is almost nonexistent in print, even in American English, according to Google Ngram Viewer.) I guess from anyday it’s a short, slippery slope to complete language chaos, and then “we might as well all go off and kill ourselves.”

But it’s not clear what her complaint about erroneous compound words has to do with literacy levels. If the only problem with literacy is that some people write maybe when they mean may be, then it seems to be, as she originally says, an especially trivial point. Yes, some people deviate from standard orthography. While this may be irritating and may occasionally cause confusion, it’s not really an indication that people don’t know how to read or write. Even educated people make mistakes, and this has always been the case. It’s not a sign of impending doom.

But let’s consider the analogies she chose to illustrate linguists’ supposed negligence. She says that we’re like epidemiologists who simply catalog all the ways in which people die from diseases or like architects who make notes while buildings collapse. (Interestingly, she makes two remarks about how well paid linguists are. Of course, professors don’t actually make that much, especially those in the humanities or social sciences. And it smacks of hypocrisy from someone whose book has sold 3 million copies.)

Perhaps there is a minor crisis in literacy, at least in the UK. This article says that 16–24-year-olds in the UK are lagging behind many counterparts in other first-world countries. (The headline suggests that they’re trailing the entire world, but the study only looked at select countries from Europe and east Asia.) Wikipedia, however, says that the UK has a 99 percent literacy rate. Maybe young people are slipping a bit, and this is certainly something that educators should address, but it doesn’t appear that countless people are dying from an epidemic of slightly declining literacy rates or that our linguistic structures are collapsing. This is simply not the linguistic apocalypse that Truss makes it out to be.

Anyway, even if it were, why would it be linguists’ job to do something about it? Literacy is taught in primary and secondary school and is usually the responsibility of reading, language arts, or English teachers—not linguists. Why not criticize English professors for sitting back and collecting fat paychecks for writing about literary theory while our kids struggle to read? Because they’re not her ideological enemy, that’s why. Linguists often oppose language pedants like Truss, and so Truss finds some reason—contrived though it may be—to blame them. Though some applied linguists do in fact study things like language acquisition and literacy, most linguists hew to the more abstract and theoretical side of language—syntax, morphology, phonology, and so on. Blaming descriptive linguists for children’s illiteracy is like blaming physicists for children’s inability to ride bikes.

And maybe the real reason why linguists are unconcerned about the upcoming linguistic apocalypse is that there simply isn’t one. Maybe linguists are like meteorologists who observe that, contrary to the claims of some individuals, the sky is not actually falling. In studying the structure of other languages and the ways in which languages change, linguists have realized that language change is not decay. Consider the opening lines from Beowulf, an Old English epic poem over a thousand years old:

HWÆT, WE GAR-DEna in geardagum,
þeodcyninga þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon!

Only two words are instantly recognizable to modern English speakers: we and in. The changes from Old English to modern English haven’t made the language better or worse—just different. Some people maintain that they understand that language changes but say that they still oppose certain changes that seem to come from ignorance or laziness. They fear that if we’re not vigilant in opposing such changes, we’ll lose our ability to communicate. But the truth is that most of those changes from Old English to modern English also came from ignorance or laziness, and we seem to communicate just fine today.

Languages can change very radically over time, but contrary to popular belief, they never devolve into caveman grunting. This is because we all have an interest in both understanding and being understood, and we’re flexible enough to adapt to changes that happen within our lifetime. And with language, as opposed to morality or ethics, there is no inherent right or wrong. Correct language is, in a nutshell, what its users consider to be correct for a given time, place, and audience. One generation’s ignorant change is sometimes the next generation’s proper grammar.

It’s no surprise that Truss fundamentally misunderstands what linguists and lexicographers do. She even admits that she was “seriously unqualified” for linguistic debate a few years back, and it seems that nothing has changed. But that probably won’t stop her from continuing to prophesy the imminent destruction of the English language. Maybe Truss is less like Chicken Little and more like the boy who cried wolf, proclaiming disaster not because she actually sees one coming, but rather because she likes the attention.

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Reflections on National Grammar Day

I know I’m a week late to the party, but I’ve been thinking a lot about National Grammar Day and want to blog about it anyway. Please forgive me for my untimeliness.

First off, I should say for those who don’t know me that I work as a copy editor. I clearly understand the value of using Standard American English when it is called for, and I know its rules and conventions quite well. I’m also a student of linguistics, and I find language fascinating. I understand the desire to celebrate language and to promote its good use, but unfortunately it appears that National Grammar Day does neither.

If you go to National Grammar Day’s web site and click on “About SPOGG” at the top of the page, you find this:

The Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar is for pen-toters appalled by wanton displays of Bad English. . . . SPOGG is for people who crave good, clean English — sentences cast well and punctuated correctly. It’s about clarity.

I can get behind those last two sentences (noting, of course, this description seems to exclude spoken English), but the first obviously flies in the face of the society’s name—is it trying to promote “good” (read “standard”) grammar, or simply ridicule what it deems to be displays of bad English? Well, if you read the SPOGG Blog, it appears to be the latter. None of the posts on the front page seem to deal with clarity; in each case it seems quite clear what the author intended, so obviously SPOGG is not about clarity after all.

In fact, what I gather from this post in particular is that SPOGG is more about the social value of using Standard English than it is about anything else. The message here is quite clear: using nonstandard English is like having spinach in your teeth. It’s like wearing a speedo on the bus. SPOGG isn’t about good, clean English or about clarity. It’s only about mocking those who violate a set of taboos. By following the rules, you signal to others that you belong to a certain group, one whose members care about linguistic manners in the same way that some people care about not putting their elbows on the table while they eat.

And that’s perfectly fine with me. If you delight in fussy little rules about spelling and punctuation, that’s your choice. But I think it’s important to distinguish between the rules that are truly important and the guidelines and conventions that are more flexible and optional. John McIntyre made this point quite well in his post today on his blog, You Don’t Say.

Unfortunately, I find that SPOGG’s founder, Martha Brockenbrough, quite frequently fails to make this distinction. She also shows an appalling lack of knowledge on issues like how language changes, what linguists do, and, to top it all off, what grammar actually is. Of course, she falls back on the “Geez, can’t you take a joke?” defense, which doesn’t really seem to fly, as Arnold Zwicky and others have already noted.

As I said at the start, I can appreciate the desire to celebrate grammar. I just wish National Grammar Day actually did that.

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Editing Chicago

Those who have worked with me before may remember that I was once nicknamed “The Index to The Chicago Manual of Style” (or just “The Index” for short) because I always knew where to find everything that anyone needed to look up. I’ve always been a fan of the big orange book. It is so painstakingly thorough, so comprehensive, so detailed—what’s not to like? But I must admit that I was rather disappointed with the new chapter on grammar and usage in the fifteenth edition.

In theory it sounded like a great addition. However, when I recieved my copy and started flipping through it, I quickly realized that the new chapter was marginally helpful at best and outright incorrect at worst, though most of it settled comfortably on the middle ground of merely useless.

One passage in particular caught my attention and just about made my eyes bug out when I read it. For those of you who would like to follow along at home, it’s section 5.113:

Progressive conjugation and voice. If an inflected form of to be is joined with the verb’s present participle, a progressive conjugation is produced {the ox is pulling the cart}. The progressive conjugation is in active voice because the subject is performing the action, not being acted on.

Anyone who knows their grammar should know that a construction can be both progressive and passive; the two are not mutually exclusive. And anyone who knows how to spot a passive construction should realize that the section illustrates how wrong it is with the last three words, “being acted on.”

You see, while it is not technically a passive, but rather a pseudo-passive*, it shows that you can take an inflected form of be, in this case “is,” followed by a present participle, “being,” followed by a past participle, “acted.” Voila! You have a passive progressive. I wrote the Chicago staff a nice e-mail saying that maybe I had misunderstood, but it seemed to me that there was a contradiction here. Here’s what they wrote back:

Yes, I think perhaps you are misunderstanding the point here. Section 5.113 seeks to prevent an inaccurate extension of 5.112, which states that “the passive voice is always formed by joining an inflected form of to be (or, in colloquial usage, to get) with the verb’s past participle.” In 5.113, CMS points out that phrases like “the subject is not being acted on,” which might look passive, are actually constructed with a present participle, rather than a past participle, and are active in voice. (Note that the subject—the word “subject”—is performing the action of not being; this is active, not passive.)

Thank you for writing

–Staff

So not only does the anonymous staff member confuse syntax and semantics, but they aren’t even bothering to analyze the verb phrase as a whole. I wrote back to explain myself in more detail. I even cited a web page from Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab. Notice the second example. Here’s their response:

Well, I’ve done my best to defend Mr. Garner’s take on the subject, but I’ll be happy to add your letter to our file of suggested corrections and additions to CMS. If you wish to explore this question further, you might take the matter up with experts at grammar Web sites and help pages. Meanwhile, please write us again if you have a question about Chicago style. –Staff

Apparently the creators of the Purdue University Online Writing Lab don’t count as experts at a grammar Web site. The sad thing is that there are a lot of editors in the world like this anonymous staffer, completely lacking the analytic tools and grammatical knowledge necessary to identify such problems and make such arguments. A good editor should know that Bryan Garner’s take on the subject is misleading and incorrect. It’s become apparent to me that many of the self-appointed guardians of the language don’t even know what it is they’re guarding.

————

*I’d like to thank Geoffrey Pullum for pointing out this distinction. The construction in the end of the quoted section is not a true passive because the verb is technically intransitive; it only seems to be transitive because of the stranded preposition. Notice that the “active” form (which is not actually active according to some definitions), “the subject is acting,” is intransitive and contains no preposition, stranded or otherwise.

The genesis of this post goes traces back several months. I was reading Language Log, notably some posts by Geoffrey Pullum on the passive voice, and felt inspired to write to him. He pointed out that he had already written about the issue, but he said that he was so surprised by the staffer’s response that he would write about it on Language Log and appoint me an honorary deputy. Sadly, he never got around to writing that post, but I was recently reading Far from the Madding Gerund and was reminded of the whole thing, so I decided to write about it myself.

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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