Arrant Pedantry

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Linguists and Straw Men

Sorry I haven’t posted in so long (I know I say that a lot)—I’ve been busy with school and things. Anyway, a couple months back I got a comment on an old post of mine, and I wanted to address it. I know it’s a bit lame to respond to two-month-old comments, but it was on a two-year-old post, so I figure it’s okay.

The comment is here, under a post of mine entitled “Scriptivists”. I believe the comment is supposed to be a rebuttal of that post, but I’m a little confused by the attempt. The commenter apparently accuses me of burning straw men, but ironically, he sets up a massive straw man of his own.

His first point seems to make fun of linguists for using technical terminology, but I’m not sure what that really proves. After all, technical terminology allows you to be very specific about abstract or complicated issues, so how is that really a criticism? I suppose it keeps a lot of laypeople from understanding what you’re saying, but if that’s the worst criticism you’ve got, then I guess I’ve got to shrug my shoulders and say, “Guilty as charged.”

The second point just makes me scratch my head. Using usage evidence from the greatest writers is a bad thing now? Honestly, how do you determine what usage features are good and worthy of emulation if not by looking to the most respected writers in the language?

The last point is just stupid. How often do you see Geoffrey Pullum or Languagehat or any of the other linguistics bloggers whipping out the fact that they have graduate degrees?

And I must disagree with Mr. Kevin S. that the “Mrs. Grundys” of the world don’t actually exist. I’ve heard too many stupid usage superstitions being perpetuated today and seen too much Strunk & White worship to believe that that sort of prescriptivist is extinct. Take, for example, Sonia Sotomayor, who says that split infinities make her “blister”. Or takeone of my sister-in-law’s professors, who insisted that her students could not use the following features in their writing:

  • The first person
  • The passive voice
  • Phrases like “this paper will show . . .” or “the data suggest . . .” because, according to her, papers are not capable of showing and data is not capable of suggesting.

How, exactly, are you supposed to write an academic paper without resorting to one of those devices—none of which, by the way, are actually wrong—at one time or another? These proscriptions were absolutely nonsensical, supported by neither logic nor usage nor common sense.

There’s still an awful lot of absolute bloody nonsense coming from the prescriptivists of the world. (Of course, this is not to say that all or even most prescriptivists are like this; take, for example, the inimitable John McIntyre, who is one of the most sensible and well-informed prescriptivists I’ve ever encountered.) And sorry to say, I don’t see the same sort of stubborn and ill-informed arguments coming from the descriptivists’ camp. And I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen a descriptivist who resembled the straw man that Kevin S. constructed.

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How I Became a Descriptivist

Believe it or not, I wasn’t always the grammar free-love hippie that I am now. I actually used to be known as quite a grammar nazi. This was back in my early days as an editor (during my first year or two of college) when I was learning lots of rules about grammar and usage and style, but before I had gotten into my major classes in English language, which introduced me to a much more descriptivist approach.

It was a gradual progression, starting with my class in modern American usage. Our textbook was Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, which is a fantastic resource for anyone interested in editing or the English language in general. The class opened my eyes to the complexities of usage issues and made me realize that few issues are as black-and-white as most prescriptivists would have you believe. And this was in a class in the editing minor of all places.

My classes in the English language major did even more to change my opinions about prescriptivism and descriptivism. Classes in Old English and the history of the English language showed me that although the language has changed dramatically over the centuries, it has never fallen into a state of chaos and decay. There has been clear, beautiful, compelling writing in every stage of the language (well, as long as there have been literate Anglo-Saxons, anyway).

But I think the final straw was annoyance with a lot of my fellow editors. Almost none of them seemed interested in doing anything other than following the strictures laid out in style guides and usage manuals (Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage was somehow exempt from reference). And far too often, the changes they made did nothing to improve the clarity, readability, or accuracy of the text. Without any depth of knowledge about the issues, they were left without the ability to make informed judgements about what should be changed.

In fact, I would say that you can’t be a truly great editor unless you learn to approach things from a descriptivist perspective. And in the end, you’re still deciding how the text should be instead of simply talking about how it is, so you haven’t fully left prescriptivism behind. But it will be an informed prescriptivism, based on facts about current and historical usage, with a healthy dose of skepticism towards the rhetoric coming from the more fundamentalist prescriptivists.

And best of all, you’ll find that the sky won’t fall and the language won’t rapidly devolve into caveman grunts just because you stopped correcting all the instances of figurative over to more than. Everybody wins.

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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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