January 13, 2014

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.

Descriptivism, Prescriptivism, Rants 16 Replies to “Lynne Truss and Chicken Little”
Jonathon Owen
Jonathon Owen


16 thoughts on “Lynne Truss and Chicken Little

    Author’s gravatar

    I like the title of that book, “Eats, Shoots and Leaves”. Good example of a pet peeve of mine – the misuse of commas.

    Author’s gravatar

    To be fair, that’s not really misuse—it’s just a different style. I don’t know why there’s not a hyphen between “zero” and “tolerance” in the subtitle, though.

    Author’s gravatar

    True. It IS a correct use, but when I look at the book’s cover photo, I see what it is implying in its tongue-in-cheek manner. 🙂

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    “Languages can change very radically over time, but contrary to popular belief, they never devolve into caveman grunting.”

    I don’t think it’s popular belief that language has devolved into caveman grunting. The popular belief might be that language has just devolved into a more puerile and monosyllabic speech pattern. I never thought, by the way, that the consensus believes language is devolving; for if it’s true then this would certainly indicate a possibility rather than not.

    We have not arrived at the grunt stage but we’ve certainly reduced our language to a more simplified and less challenging vocabulary. We’ve also coarsened our English with profanity that was once verboten in mainstream media and in public discourse, but is now almost widely accepted as the archetype for today’s style of speech.

    “…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.”

    This is true, and I don’t think English teachers or language mavens in general are in disagreement. But what they do oppose is when linguists, de facto grammarians, make it their job to debunk grammar rules and opine on correct usage.

    After all, do anthropologists instruct the judicial system on how to castigate criminals or what laws should be imposed to deter crime? I don’t think so.

    Author’s gravatar

    “Anyday?” Seriously? Well, I have about as firm a handle on British English as Ms Truss and her editors seem to have on American English, so who knows? Maybe inappropriate compounding really is a big problem over there in the UK (though I kinda doubt it). But the funny thing is that on this side of the Atlantic, I see a lot of the opposite — just today I read “handy work” instead of “handiwork” on someone’s blog, for example. So don’t worry, England, we’ll make sure the net balance of compound words is preserved!

    So yeah, that was a silly column from Lynne Truss. I’m going to back her up on one point, though. Jonathan, you wrote that “it’s not clear what her complaint about erroneous compound words has to do with literacy levels.” I reckon her point there is simply that the more you read, the more intuitively you navigate distinctions like “any more” / “anymore,” which makes you less likely to write the wrong one. Of course, that assumes that what you’re reading is books. If you’re reading lots of informal writing instead, your intuitive navigation may be a bit different.

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    Richard: “We have not arrived at the grunt stage but we’ve certainly reduced our language to a more simplified and less challenging vocabulary.” Utterb twaddle. You are simply making that up, with no evidence to back you up at all. And linquists don’t “debunk grammar rules”, they carefully distinguish between real grammar rules and prescriptivist fake rules.

    Author’s gravatar


    Why would I be making it up?

    The evidence is quite ubiquitous. I suggest you read a few books and acquaint yourself with today’s literature.

    By the way, there is no such thing as “prescriptivist fake rules”, that’s what’s made up, as is the word “utterb”.

    Author’s gravatar

    Ah, the desperate old “the evidence is out there, but I’m not going to provide it, you’ll have to find it yourself” ploy. Richard, let me be blunt. You’re talking total rubbish. You’ve made a lazy, stupid generalisation, and when challenged you’ve been unable to back it up.

    And yes, there are dozens of prescriptivist fake rules. Unlike you, I can point to the evidence: read, for one, this excellent piece by Stan Carey, here http://stancarey.wordpress.com/2010/02/16/descriptivism-vs-prescriptivism-war-is-over-if-you-want-it/ and click through to a few of the sources he gives links to.

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    Richard: As Terry says, it’s a pretty weak argument to make a claim and then direct people who challenge your claim to find the evidence themselves. The burden of proof is on you. And even if it can be shown that writing is less challenging today, you still need to show that this is a bad thing. It’s arguable that clearer, more direct writing is better for comprehension.

    Your analogy about anthropologists still presupposes that there’s some sort of crime being committed. What if anthropologists could show that something isn’t in fact a crime but is simply a different cultural practice that doesn’t hurt anyone or anything?

    And yes, there are dozens if not hundreds of fake, invented prescriptive rules. As t said, linguists distinguish between the authentic rules of the language and the fake ones.

    practik: I see your point, but I still think Truss’s argument is shaky at best. Just because kids are writing anyday doesn’t mean they don’t know how to read; it probably just means that they’re reading a lot more informal, unedited writing, as you said. If it really is evidence of a problem with literacy, then she needs to make a stronger argument.

    Author’s gravatar

    Terry Collmann:
    Before you accuse me of talking “rubbish” I suggest you familiarize yourself with prescriptive rules and the constant battle with the descriptive approach taken by most academic linguists.

    Descriptivism analyzes how language works without any concern whether it’s good or bad. The rubbish that you accuse me of is countenanced by academics with perhaps a little more acumen than you possess. This is obvious, for they would never refer to a contrary position as rubbish. To argue your point with an uncivil tone only diminishes the meaningfulness of your rebuttal.

    The misguided and uninformed claim that prescriptive rules are “fake” is nonsense. Jack Lynch, in his book “The lexicographer’s Dilemma”, quotes the grammarian John Brightland writing in 1711: “ To speak and write without Absurdity the Language of one’s Country,” he asserted, “requires a Grammatical Knowledge of it; for without That ‘tis impossible so much as to Read, Sensibly, the Books written in our Own Language. Nor indeed can an author write Intelligibly (That is, with a Clear and Determinate Sense) without Conformity to Grammar-Rules.” Lynch says: “In one sense, this is perfectly true: it is impossible to speak, write, or read “without Conformity to Grammar-Rules.”

    These rules are not “fake”, perhaps a few of them are irrational and archaic, but keep in mind when they were codified, and as we’ve been reminded, ad infinitum, language evolves.

    Terry, you’ve submitted links that support your position because they were written by descriptivists; there is no need for me to read them. Furthermore, the links that you suggested are not evidence, as you mistakenly claim, they’re just OPINIONS that substantiate your argument, and I can also submit links that support my position and we can further this debate for the next millennium.

    Author’s gravatar

    Ms. Truss must have some bills that need paying.
    She bores the every day trousers off of me. ;-)Don’t know why you give her the time of day.

    Author’s gravatar

    Richard, which type of rules are you speaking of (or would you prefer, “of which type rules are you speaking”), constitutive, or regulative ones?

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    Richard, are you seriously taking up the position that you’re not going to read any evidence against your argument because it’s written by people who disagree with you? Because that’s the most intellectually pathetic, cowardly drivel ever. I’m afraid you show clearly that you know nothing about the subject when you claim that “most academic linguists” are in “constant battle with the descriptive approach”, because that’s simply not true. You won’t find any academic linguists who do not support the descriptive approach. However, you appear to think that “descriptivism” equals “there are no rules” – clearly there are many hundreds of rules involved in writing comprehendable English. And descriptivism describes them. But prescriptivism, as used by academic linguists, is a useful label for people who attempt to impose bogus rules, such as “no singular they”, or “‘less than’ only for non-countables”, when (1) good writers have been doing the opposite for, often, hundreds of years and (2) imposing such fake “rules” would make no difference at all to comprehendability. If you’re standing in a supermarket queue, a sign saying “eight items or less” is just as understandable as one saying “eight items or fewer”. And you continue to refuse to submit your evidence for a deterioration in English, claiming that we should be “quite familiar with the many articles and books written on the deterioration of our language; there is no need for me to submit them.” Sorry, but I want to see a list of at least a dozen books and 20 articles backing your claim, or you’re making it up.

    Finally, I’m not sure Jack Lynch backs your argument in the way you seem to think he does. Here’s Lynch himself on his book: “Nowhere do I say, as the headline hints, “the rules are optional,” though I do try to get layfolk to understand the various meanings of “rules” (linguists mean by that word something very different from schoolmarms). And while I point out that some of the arch-prescriptivists’ favorite rules are downright silly, mostly I’m concerned with tracing the history of prescriptive attitudes toward English.” That’s from http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2019 which, incidentally, is the arch-descriptivist Language Log blog, which liked Mr Lynch’s book a great deal.

    Author’s gravatar

    Truss’s comparison of linguists with epidemiologists is just annoying. A spelling mistake is not a medical condition.

    Author’s gravatar

    Jonathon, well said! “Blaming descriptive linguists for children’s illiteracy is like blaming physicists for children’s inability to ride bikes.” Fantastic:)

    Rules should help people communicate better generally. Thinking of specific rules, “12:00 a.m. = midnight” is a good rule. And it’s good that we all spell “in” I-N instead of A-N.

    A bad rule impedes communication. For example, “no prepositions at the end of a sentence” can force confusing structures that readers need to read twice.

    “Any day” vs. “Anyday” clearly isn’t a good rule, but nor is it a bad rule. It’s fine. I follow it. I also teach it to my students. And we should teach it. It doesn’t particularly matter by itself, but when we sum all of the fine rules together, they improve communication. It’s just easier to read when everyone is doing things the same way.

    That said, let’s not freak out when people break a rule in one instance or follow a different rule. Either they’re not detail oriented or they don’t know the rule. Either way, the content of their ideas is surely more important.

    Three more points…
    1. If many people are breaking a rule, it’s good to ask why. Maybe the rule is a bad rule?

    2. Let’s embrace changes that improve communication. (Spelling changes when texting/chatting, for instance, make it easier to say what you want.)

    3. The only unfortunate thing is when people use language rules to make themselves feel superior to those brought up with different rules.

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