August 7, 2011

It’s just a joke. But no, seriously.

I know I just barely posted about the rhetoric of prescriptivism, but it’s still on my mind, especially after the recent post by David Bentley Hart and the responses by response by John E. McIntyre (here and here) and Robert Lane Greene. I know things are just settling down, but my intent here is not to throw more fuel on the fire, but to draw attention to what I believe is a problematic trend in the rhetoric of prescriptivism. Hart claims that his piece is just some light-hearted humor, but as McIntyre, Greene, and others have complained, it doesn’t really feel like humor.

That is, while it is clear that Hart doesn’t really believe that the acceptance of solecisms leads to the acceptance of cannibalism, it seems that he really does believe that solecisms are a serious problem. Indeed, Hart says, “Nothing less than the future of civilization itself is at issue—honestly—and I am merely doing my part to stave off the advent of an age of barbarism.” If it’s all a joke, as he says, then this statement is somewhat less than honest. And as at least one person says in the comments, Hart’s style is close to self-parody. (As an intellectual exercise, just try to imagine what a real parody would look like.) Perhaps I’m just being thick, but I can only see two reasons for such a style: first, it’s a genuine parody designed to show just how ridiculous the peevers are, or second, it’s a cover for genuine peeving.

I’ve seen this same phenomenon at work in the writings of Lynne Truss, Martha Brockenbrough, and others. They make some ridiculously over-the-top statements about the degenerate state of language today, they get called on it, and then they or their supporters put up the unassailable defense: It’s just a joke, see? Geez, lighten up! Also, you’re kind of a dimwit for not getting it.

That is, not only is it a perfect defense for real peeving, but it’s a booby-trap for anyone who dares to criticize the peever—by refusing to play the game, they put themselves firmly in the out group, while the peeve-fest typically continues unabated. But as Arnold Zwicky once noted, the “dead-serious advocacy of what [they take] to be the standard rules of English . . . makes the just-kidding defense of the enterprise ring hollow.” But I think it does more than just that: I think it undermines the credibility of prescriptivism in general. Joking or not, the rhetoric is polarizing and admits of no criticism. It reinforces the notion that “Discussion is not part of the agenda of the prescriptive grammarian.”1James Milroy, “The Consequences of Standardisation in Descriptive Linguistics,” in Standard English: The Widening Debate, ed. Tony Bex and Richard J. Watts (New York: Routledge, 1999), 21. It makes me dislike prescriptivism in general, even though I actually agree with several of Hart’s points of usage.

As I said above, the point of this post was not to reignite a dying debate between Hart and his critics, but to draw attention to what I think is a serious problem surrounding the whole issue. In other words, I may not be worried about the state of the language, but I certainly am worried about the state of the language debate.


1 James Milroy, “The Consequences of Standardisation in Descriptive Linguistics,” in Standard English: The Widening Debate, ed. Tony Bex and Richard J. Watts (New York: Routledge, 1999), 21.
Prescriptivism 7 Replies to “It’s just a joke. But no, seriously.”
Jonathon Owen
Jonathon Owen


7 thoughts on “It’s just a joke. But no, seriously.

    Author’s gravatar

    Hmm. I suppose one could adopt the “language as a living thing” approach and say that some things are legitimate growth, development and natural signs of aging while other things are diseases and cancers. But such an organic approach would necessarily leave aside orthographic matters which vex the editing world. I’m guessing, that’s how it was a long time ago and far away from where you are. Whenever I brought up orthography my theoretical linguist professors would exclude it as being important.

    Author’s gravatar

    “Discussion is not part of the agenda of the prescriptive grammarian.”

    What a great line. You can substitute a number of other people for “prescriptive grammarian” and you’ve identified the problem with the offerings of many experts and authorities. They don’t recognize that others have something to offer on whatever the subject may be. At least they don’t recognize that others may have a contrary point worth listening to; if you agree with them, they think you are very worth listening to (as long as you don’t take too much time).


    Author’s gravatar

    pooka: The question is, how do you determine which changes are good and which are bad? And who gets to make that call?

    And I think that orthography is a legitimate linguistic issue, but I know most theoretical linguists ignore it, as you said.

    Tim: Too true. There are an awful lot of people who aren’t really interested in rational discussion so much as hearing people agree with them. But it’s especially frustrating when one side takes a mostly fact-based approach and the other mostly wants to rant.

    Author’s gravatar

    “The question is, how do you determine which changes are good and which are bad? And who gets to make that call?”

    Why, who but Old Bill’s girlfriend, Norma Loquendi? Or as the Tentmaker put it (sort of):

    The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
    Moves on: nor all thy Peevery nor Wit
    Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
    Nor all thy Flames burn out a Word of it.

    Author’s gravatar

    Oh, good old Norma—so often ignored in discussions of correctness.

    Author’s gravatar

    Hart acted like I was a fool for not getting that he was trying to be funny. I got that. But not only was it not all that funny for me, the humor was completely oblique to his point. It wasn’t a satire. He was making a serious point, and he was wrong in so many ways that I had to respond. As it happened, my response was off a bit. I fessed up, we all exchanged a bunch of comments and updates and follow-up posts, and things cooled down. But then Hart’s last word was a follow-up post saying that he was being funny the first time, but he really thought what he thought. So he took the “hey, can’t you take a joke?” defense out of his own hands.

    I suspect if I meet Lynne Truss one day she’ll shake her head at me as though I don’t get British humour or something. I get it. She’s just still wrong.

    Author’s gravatar

    Even if he didn’t technically commit an etymological fallacy, he committed a fallacy that’s not far removed from it, which is that a word’s meaning should not be allowed to change too much. And he probably wouldn’t be worried about transpire if someone hadn’t originally committed the etymological fallacy in their worrying over it.

    Like I said, the “Can’t you take a joke?” defense is perfect. It allows the peever to wrap their peeves up in the trappings of a well-reasoned and persuasive argument about protecting our precious cultural heritage, while deflecting any real attempts to engage on that level.

    If you attack the argument, they laugh at you for not getting the joke or dismiss you for being one of those permissive types who don’t value the beauty that is good language. And of course, the only people who really get the joke are those who buy into all the unchallenged and unproven assumptions that go along with the peeving. You literally can’t win.

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