September 3, 2006

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.

Descriptivism, Prescriptivism, Rants 16 Replies to “Arrant Pedantry”
Jonathon Owen
Jonathon Owen


16 thoughts on “Arrant Pedantry

    Author’s gravatar

    Wow. I totally agree. There are a few “rules” that I get way too excited about—but only in professional settings. Otherwise, I care a lot more about the variety of English. As long as I can understand what someone’s saying, how they say it is of little importance.

    And I also agree that there should be some standard. If there weren’t, it would be hard to communicate and, again, that’s my main concern.

    Anyway, when you said this was a rant I almost didn’t read it because I expected it to be very angry and very long. But then, it was perfect and I read it all the way through (admittedly, it wasn’t very long).

    Author’s gravatar

    I have to admit, I correct people mentally when they end sentences with a prepostion or say “less” when they mean “fewer.” But I have to be pretty close with someone to correct people out loud.

    Author’s gravatar

    I agreed with almost everything here.

    Except for the part about a subordinate that, because I don’t know what that means. Would you care to explain?

    Author’s gravatar

    JB: I guess I use the term “rant” loosely. It was prompted by some things that make me upset, but I wasn’t exactly foaming at the mouth while I wrote it.

    TB: But ending a sentence with a preposition is not an error! I guess admitting you have a problem is the first step to overcoming it, though. And the second step is me hitting you over the head with a copy of Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage—but only because I love you.

    Porteiro: What I’m talking about is cases where you have an optional “that” introducing a clause, like “I said that I knew him.” The rules of English grammar allow you to drop the “that” in such cases. Some people, however, mistakenly believe that you must omit the “that” here, meaning that “I said that I knew him” is wrong and “I said I knew him” is right. It’s completely ridiculous.

    Author’s gravatar

    I’ve never heard the injunction against subordinate “that.” How irritating. I think that it makes such sentences much easier to parse.

    This is a fantastic blog, Jon. I wish you would publish a book of collected essays like these. I would buy two copies and tell friends to read it.

    Hope to see you tonight.

    Author’s gravatar

    I’d never heard that particular nonsense rule until just recently, when I read about it on Language Log (I don’t remember if it was a recent post or part of the archives). Someone wrote to one of the authors to say that he was taught in high school that it had to be omitted whenever possible. Complete rubbish. I think it should be kept more often than not; journalists love to drop it all the time, but I think that it leads to a lot of easily avoidable misreadings.

    Thanks for the compliment. I’m very flattered. 🙂

    Unfortunately we weren’t able to make it tonight (as you probably gathered by now). We’ll have to get together with you guys some other time.

    Author’s gravatar

    You use “they” with a *singular* antecedant? [throws Strunk and White at head] Not, umm, that I’m one of those uptight, misguided faux-grammarians or anything.

    Someone has been editing “that” out of my writing lately. It makes me sad.

    Author’s gravatar

    Oh, goodie, another copy of Strunk and White to burn!

    It’s alright, Brozy—there’s hope for you yet. All you have to do is start reading Language Log on a regular basis. You’ll be cured of your grammatical misconceptions in no time.

    Author’s gravatar

    Jon, you’re definitely more of a linguist than a grammarian.

    Author’s gravatar

    I don’t believe in place either the letter or the spirit of the law higher, FWIW.

    Author’s gravatar

    “Just because Shakespeare made mistakes doesn’t make it alright.”

    No, no, no. That’s not the correct response! That would be, “Well, when you’re as great as Shakespeare, you can break all the rules of English grammar and usage too.” Followed by an explanation that one must first *learn* all the rules before one can determine when it’s ok to break ’em.

    Author’s gravatar

    I think you’re assuming that Shakespeare thoughtfully considered whether it was okay to break the rule and use they with a singular antecedent. I think you’re also forgetting that it wasn’t until well after Shakespeare’s time that people suddenly decided—for no good reason—that such usage was wrong.

    Author’s gravatar

    rivka –

    Certainly, many great writers break the rules of their craft to great artistic effect, and no one thinks that “[anyone] sang his didn’t he danced his did” because e.e. cummings didn’t know the difference between an inflection and a noun phrase.

    However, prescriptivists are fond of invoking some sort of bygone golden age of grammatical purity, when men were men and women were women and pronouns that take singular antecedents were pronouns that take singular antecedenets. A little research will reveal that many commonly criticized grammatical constructions have existed (*unmarked*) in the English language for centuries, even in the works of the greatest writers (i.e. “they” with a singular antecedent in Shakespeare). Where, exactly, are these rules coming from, if they’re not based on the language usage itself?

    What’s more interesting are the things over which earlier generations of prescriptivists wrung their hands. A century ago, some people were aghast at such phrases as “the picked fence was dilapidated” and “hopefully, my exam won’t be very hard.” If you don’t see what’s “wrong” with those phrases, it’s because we’ve moved on to frying a different kettle of arbitrary fish (and because there was nothing really wrong with them in the first place).

    Author’s gravatar

    Should be “pickeT fence.” Sorry.

    […] Grammar all look at English grammar and usage from a rational, descriptivist perspective, with comments on how grammar is misunderstood, detailed essays on the apostrophe, and comments on prescriptivism in comic books. English, Jack […]

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