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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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 take one 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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