Pinker, Stephen. 1994. The Language Instinct. How the mind creates language. New York NY: Morrow [Chapter 12], pp. 370-403
The Language Mavens
(in: Steven Pinker, 1995, The Language Instinct - How the Mind Creates Language, HarperPerennial)
Imagine that you are watching a nature documentary. The video shows the usual gorgeous footage of animals in their natural habitats. But the voiceover reports some troubling facts. Dolphins do not execute their swimming strokes properly. White-crowned sparrows carelessly debase their calls. Chickadees' nests are incorrectly constructed, pandas hold bamboo in the wrong paw, the song of the humpback whale contains several well-known errors, and monkeys' cries have been in a state of chaos and degeneration for hundreds of years. Your reaction would probably be, What on earth could itmean for the song of the humpback whale to contain an "error"? Isn't the song of the humpback whale whatever the humpback whale decides to sing? Who is this announcer, anyway?
But for human language, most people think that the same pronouncements not only are meaningful but are cause for alarm. Johnny can't construct a grammatical sentence. As educational standards decline and pop culture disseminates the inarticulate ravings and unintelligible patois of surfers, jocks, and valley girls, we are turning into a nation of functional illiterates: misusing hopefully, confusing lie and lay, treating data as a singular noun, letting our participles dangle. English itself will steadily decay unless we get back to basics and start to respect our language again.
To a linguist or psycholinguist, of course, language is like the song of the humpback whale. The way to determine whether a construction is "grammatical" is to find people who speak the language and ask them. So when people are accused of speaking "ungrammatically" in
their own language, or of consistently violating a "rule," there must be some different sense of "grammatical" and "rule" in the air. In fact, the pervasive belief that people do not know their own language is a nuisance in doing linguistic research. A linguist's question to an informant about some form in his or her speech (say, whether the person uses sneaked or snuck) is often lobbed back with the ingenuous counterquestion "Gee, I better not take a chance; which is correct?"
In this chapter I had better resolve this contradiction for you. Recall columnist Erma Bombeck, incredulous at the very idea of a grammar gene because her husband taught thirty-seven high school students who thought that "bummer" was a sentence. You, too, might be wondering: if language is as instinctive as spinning a web, if every three-year-old is a grammatical genius, if the design of syntax is coded in our DNA and wired into our brains, why is the English language in such a mess? Why does the average American sound like a gibbering fool every time he opens his mouth or puts pen to paper?
The contradiction begins in the fact that the words "rule," "grammatical," and "ungrammatical" have very different meanings to a scientist and to a layperson. The rules people learn (or, more likely, fail to learn) in school are called prescriptive rules, prescribing how one "ought" to talk. Scientists studying language propose descriptive rules, describing how people do talk. They are completely different things, and there is a good reason that scientists focus on descriptive rules.
To a scientist, the fundamental fact of human language is its sheer improbability. Most objects in the universe—lakes, rocks, trees, worms, cows, cars—cannot talk. Even in humans, the utterances in a language are an infinitesimal fraction of the noises people's mouths are capable of making. I can arrange a combination of words that explains how octopuses make love or how to remove cherry stains; rearrange the words in even the most minor way, and the result is a sentence with a different meaning or, most likely of all, word salad. How are we to account for this miracle? What would it take to build a device that could duplicate human language?
Obviously, you need to build in some kind of rules, but what kind? Prescriptive rules? Imagine trying to build a talking machine by designing it to obey rules like "Don't split infinitives" or "Never begin a sentence with because." It would just sit there. In fact, we already have machines that don't split infinitives; they're called screw
drivers, bathtubs, cappuccino-makers, and so on. Prescriptive rules are useless without the much more fundamental rules that create sentences and define the infinitives and list the word because to begin with, the rules of Chapters 4 and 5. These rules are never mentioned in style manuals or school grammars because the authors correctly assume that anyone capable of reading the manuals must already have the rules. No one, not even a valley girl, has to be told not to say Apples the eat boy or The child seems sleeping or Who did you meet John and? or the vast, vast majority of the millions of trillions of mathematically possible combinations of words. So when a scientist considers all the high-tech mental machinery needed to arrange words into ordinary sentences, prescriptive rules are, at best, inconsequential little decorations. The very fact that they have to be drilled shows that they are alien to the natural workings of the language system. One can choose to obsess over prescriptive rules, but they have no more to do with human language than the criteria for judging cats at a cat show have to do with mammalian biology.
So there is no contradiction in saying that every normal person can speak grammatically (in the sense of systematically) and ungrammatically (in the sense of nonprescriptively), just as there is no contradiction in saying that a taxi obeys the laws of physics but breaks the laws of Massachusetts. But this raises a question. Someone, somewhere, must be making decisions about "correct English" for the rest of us. Who? There is no English Language Academy, and this is just as well; the purpose of the Académie Française is to amuse journalists from other countries with bitterly argued decisions that the French gaily ignore. Nor were there any Founding Fathers at some English Language Constitutional Conference at the beginning of time. The legislators of "correct English," in fact, are an informal network of copy-editors, dictionary usage panelists, style manual and handbook writers, English teachers, essayists, columnists, and pundits. Their authority, they claim, comes from their dedication to implementing standards that have served the language well in the past, especially in the prose of its finest writers, and that maximize its clarity, logic, consistency, conciseness, elegance, continuity, precision, stability, integrity, and expressive range. (Some of them go further and say that they are actually safeguarding the ability to think clearly and logically. This radical Whorfianism is common among language pundits, not surprisingly; who would settle for being a schoolmarm when one can
be an upholder of rationality itself?) William Safire, who writes the weekly column "On Language" for The New York Times Magazine, calls himself a "language maven," from the Yiddish word meaning expert, and this gives us a convenient label for the entire group.
To whom I say: Maven, shmaven! Kibbitzers and nudniks is more like it. For here are the remarkable facts. Most of the prescriptive rules of the language mavens make no sense on any level. They are bits of folklore that originated for screwball reasons several hundred years ago and have perpetuated themselves ever since. For as long as they have existed, speakers have flouted them, spawning identical plaints about the imminent decline of the language century after century. All the best writers in English at all periods, including Shakespeare and most of the mavens themselves, have been among the flagrant flouters. The rules conform neither to logic nor to tradition, and if they were ever followed they would force writers into fuzzy, clumsy, wordy, ambiguous, incomprehensible prose, in which certain thoughts are not expressible at all. Indeed, most of the "ignorant errors" these rules are supposed to correct display an elegant logic and an acute sensitivity to the grammatical texture of the language, to which the mavens are oblivious.
The scandal of the language mavens began in the eighteenth century. London had become the political and financial center of England, and England had become the center of a powerful empire. The London dialect was suddenly an important world language. Scholars began to criticize it as they would any artistic or civil institution, in part to question the customs, hence authority, of court and aristocracy. Latin was still considered the language of enlightenment and learning (not to mention the language of a comparably vast empire), and it was offered as an ideal of precision and logic to which English should aspire. The period also saw unprecedented social mobility, and anyone who desired education and self-improvement and who wanted to distinguish himself as cultivated had to master the best version of English. These trends created a demand for handbooks and style manuals, which were soon shaped by market forces. Casting English grammar into the mold of Latin grammar made the books useful as a way of helping young students learn Latin. And as the competition became cutthroat, the manuals tried to outdo one another by including greater numbers of increasingly fastidious rules that no refined person could afford to ignore. Most of the hobgoblins
of contemporary prescriptive grammar (don't split infinitives, don't end a sentence with a preposition) can be traced back to these eighteenth-century fads.
Of course, forcing modern speakers of English to not—whoops, not to split an infinitive because it isn't done in Latin makes about as much sense as forcing modern residents of England to wear laurels and togas. Julius Caesar could not have split an infinitive if he had wanted to. In Latin the infinitive is a single word like facere or dicere, a syntactic atom. English is a different kind of language. It is an "isolating" language, building sentences around many simple words instead of a few complicated ones. The infinitive is composed of two words—a complementizer, to, and a verb, like go. Words, by definition, are rearrangeable units, and there is no conceivable reason why an adverb should not come between them:Space—the final frontier . . . These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.To go boldly where no man has gone before? Beam me up, Scotty; there's no intelligent life down here. As for outlawing sentences that end with a preposition (impossible in Latin for good reasons having to do with its case-marking system, reasons that are irrelevant in casepoor English)—as Winston Churchill would have said, it is a rule up with which we should not put.
But once introduced, a prescriptive rule is very hard to eradicate, no matter how ridiculous. Inside the educational and writing establishments, the rules survive by the same dynamic that perpetuates ritual genital mutilations and college fraternity hazing: I had to go through it and am none the worse, so why should you have it any easier? Anyone daring to overturn a rule by example must always worry that readers will think he or she is ignorant of the rule, rather than challenging it. (I confess that this has deterred me from splitting some splitworthy infinitives.) Perhaps most importantly, since prepscriptive rules are so psychologically unnatural that only those with access to the right schooling can abide by them, they serve as shibboleths, differentiating the elite from the rabble.
The concept of shibboleth (Hebrew for "torrent") comes from the Bible:And the Gileadites took the passages of Jordan before the Ephraimites: and it was so, that when those Ephraimites which were escaped said, Let me go over; that the men of Gilead said unto him, Art thou an Ephraimite? If he said, Nay; Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of the Jordan: and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand. (Judges 12:5-6)This is the kind of terror that has driven the prescriptive grammar market in the United States during the past century. Throughout the country people have spoken a dialect of English, some of whose features date to the early modern English period, that H. L. Mencken called The American Language. It had the misfortune of not becoming the standard of government and education, and large parts of the "grammar" curriculum in American schools have been dedicated to stigmatizing it as ungrammatical, sloppy speech. Familiar examples are aks a question, workin', ain't, I don't see no birds, he don't, them boys, we was, and past-tense forms like drug, seen, clump, drownded, and growed. For ambitious adults who had been unable to complete school, there were full-page magazine ads for correspondence courses, containing lists of examples under screaming headlines like "DO YOU MAKE ANY OF THESE EMBARRASSING MISTAKES?"
Frequently the language mavens claims that nonstandard American English is not just different but less sophisticated and logical. The case, they would have to admit, is hard to make for nonstandard irregular verbs like drag-drug (and even more so for regularizations like feeled and growed). After all, in "correct" English, Richard Lederer notes, "Today we speak, but first we spoke; some faucets leak, but never loke. Today we write, but first we wrote; we bite our tongues, but never bote." At first glance, the mavens would seem to have a better argument when it comes to the levering of inflectional
distinctions in He don't and We was. But then, this has been the trend in Standard English for centuries. No one gets upset that we no longer distinguish the second person singular form of verbs, like sayest. And by this criterion it is the nonstandard dialects that are superior, because they provide their speakers with second person plural pronouns like y'all and youse, and Standard English does not.
At this point, defenders of the standard are likely to pull out the notorious double negative, as in I can't get no satisfaction. Logically speaking, the two negatives cancel each other out, they teach; Mr. Jagger is actually saying that he is satisfied. The song should be entitled "I Can't Get Any Satisfaction." But this reasoning is not satisfactory. Hundreds of languages require their speakers to use a negative element somewhere within the "scope," as linguists call it, of a negated verb. The so-called double negative, far from being a corruption, was the norm in Chaucer's Middle English, and negation in standard French—as in Je ne sais pas, where ne and pas are both negative—is a familiar contemporary example. Come to think of it, Standard English is really no different. What do any, even, and at all mean in the following sentences?I didn't buy any lottery tickets.Clearly, not much: you can't use them alone, as the following strange sentences show:
I didn't eat even a single French fry.
I didn't eat fried food at all today.I bought any lottery tickets.What these words are doing is exactly what no is doing in nonstandard American English, such as in the equivalent I didn't buy no lottery tickets—agreeing with the negated verb. The slim difference is that nonstandard English co-opted the word no as the agreement element, whereas Standard English co-opted the word any; aside from that, they are pretty much translations. And one more point has to be made. In the grammar of standard English, a double negative does not assert the corresponding affirmative. No one would dream of
I ate even a single French fry.
I ate fried food at all today.
saying I can't get no satisfaction out of the blue to boast that he easily attains contentment. There are circumstances in which one might use the construction to deny a preceding negation in the discourse, but denying a negation is not the same as asserting an affirmative, and even then one could probably only use it by putting heavy stress on the negative element, as in the following contrived example:As hard as I try not to be smug about the misfortunes of my adversaries, I must admit that I can't get no satisfaction out of his tenure denial.So the implication that use of the nonstandard form would lead to confusion is pure pedantry.
A tin ear for prosody (stress and intonation) and an obliviousness to the principles of discourse and rhetoric are important tools of the trade for the language maven. Consider an alleged atrocity committed by today's youth: the expression I could care less. The teenagers are trying to express disdain, the adults note, in which case they should be saying I couldn't care less. If they could care less than they do, that means that they really do care, the opposite of what they are trying to say. But if these dudes would stop ragging on teenagers and scope out the construction, they would see that their argument is bogus. Listen to how the two versions are pronounced:COULDN'T care ILE CAREi ESS. LEcould ESS.The melodies and stresses are completely different, and for. a good reason. The second version is not illogical, it's sarcastic. The point of sarcasm is that by making an assertion that is manifestly false or accompanied by ostentatiously mannered intonation, one deliberately implies its opposite. A good paraphrase is, "Oh yeah, as if there was something in the world that I care less about."
Sometimes an alleged grammatical "error" is logical not only in the sense of "rational" but in the sense of respecting distinctions made by the formal logician. Consider this alleged barbarism, brought up by nearly every language maven:
Everyone returned to their seats.They explain: everyone means every one, a singular subject, which may not serve as the antecedent of a plural pronoun like them later in the sentence. "Everyone returned to his seat," they insist. "If anyone calls, tell him I can't come to the phone."
Anyone who thinks a Yonex racquet has improved their game, raise your hand.
If anyone calls, tell them I can't come to the phone.
Someone dropped by but they didn't say what they wanted.
No one should have to sell their home to pay for medical care.
He's one of those guys who's always patting themself on the back. [an actual quote from Holden Caulfield in J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye]
If you were the target of these lessons, at this point you might be getting a bit uncomfortable. Everyone returned to his seat makes it sound like Bruce Springsteen was discovered during intermission to be in the audience, and everyone rushed back and converged on his seat to await an autograph. If there is a good chance that a caller may be female, it is odd to ask one's roommate to tell him anything (even if you are not among the people who are concerned about "sexist language"). Such feelings of disquiet—a red flag to any serious linguist—are well founded in this case. The next time you get corrected for this sin, ask Mr. Smartypants how you should fix the following:
Mary saw everyone before John noticed them.Now watch him squirm as he mulls over the downright unintelligible "improvement," Mary saw everyone before John noticed him.
The logical point that you, Holden Caulfield, and everyone but the language mavens intuitively grasp is that everyone and they are not an "antecedent" and a "pronoun" referring to the same person in the world, which would force them to agree in number. They are a "quantifier" and a "bound variable," a different logical relationship. Everyone returned to their seats means "For all X, X returned to X's seat." The "X" does not refer to any particular person or group of people; it is simply a placeholder that keeps track of the roles that players play across different relationships. In this case, the X that
comes back to a seat is the same X that owns the seat that X comes back to. The their there does not, in fact, have plural number, because it refers neither to one thing nor to many things; it does not refer at all. The same goes for the hypothetical caller: there may be one, there may be none, or the phone might ring off the hook with would-be suitors; all that matters is that every time there is a caller, if there is a caller, that caller, and not someone else, should be put off.
On logical grounds, then, variables are not the same thing as the more familiar "referential" pronouns that trigger number agreement (he meaning some particular guy, they meaning some particular bunch of guys). Some languages are considerate and offer their speakers different words for referential pronouns and for variables. But English is stingy; a referential pronoun must be drafted into service to lend its name when a speaker needs to use a variable. Since these are not real referential pronouns but only homonyms of them, there is no reason that the vernacular decision to borrow they their, them for the task is any worse than the prescriptivists' recommendation of he, him, his. Indeed, they has the advantage of embracing both sexes and feeling right in a wider variety of sentences.
Through the ages, language mavens have deplored the way English speakers convert nouns into verbs. The following verbs have all been denounced in this century:to caveatAs you can see, they range from varying degrees of awkwardness to the completely unexceptionable. In fact, easy conversion of nouns to verbs has been part of English grammar for centuries; it is one of the processes that make English English. I have estimated that about a fifth of all English verbs were originally nouns. Considering just the human body, you can head a committee, scalp the missionary, eye a babe, nose around the office, mouth the lyrics, gum the biscuit, begin teething, tongue each note on the flute, jaw at the referee, neck in the back seat, back a candidate, arm the militia, shoulder the burden, elbow your quay in, hand him a toy, finger the culprit, knuckle under, thumb
a ride, wrist it into the net, belly up to the bar, stomach someone's complaints, rib your drinking huddles, knee the goalie, leg it across town, heel on command, foot the hill, toe the line, and several others that I cannot print in a family language book.
What's the problem? The concern seems to be that fuzzy-minded speakers are slowly eroding the distinction between nouns and verbs. But once again, the person in the street is not getting any respect. Remember a phenomenon we encountered in Chapter 5: the past tense of the baseball term to fly out is flied, not flew; similarly, we say ringed the city, not rang, and grandstanded, not grandstood. These are verbs that came from nouns (a pop fly, a ring around the city, a grandstand). Speakers are tacitly sensitive to this derivation. The reason they avoid irregular forms like flew out is that their mental dictionary entry for the baseball verb to fly is different from their mental dictionary entry for the ordinary verb to fly (what birds do). One is represented as a verb based on a noun root; the other, as a verb with a verb root. Only the verb root is allowed to have the irregular past tense form flew, because only for verb roots does it make sense to have any past-tense form. The phenomenon shows that when people use a noun as a verb, they are making their mental dictionaries more sophisticated, not less so—it's not that words are losing their identities as verbs versus nouns; rather, there are verbs, there are nouns, and there are verbs based on nouns, and people store each one with a different mental tag.
The most remarkable aspect of the special status of verbs-from-nouns is that everyone unconsciously respects it. Remember from Chapter 5 that if you make up a new verb based on a noun, like someone's name, it is always regular, even if the new verb sounds the same as an existing verb that is irregular. (For example, Mae Jemison, the beautiful black female astronaut, out-Sally-Rided Sally Ride, not out-Sally-Rode Sally Ride.) My research team has tried this test, using about twenty-five new verbs made out of nouns, on hundreds of people—college students, respondents to an ad we placed in a tabloid newspaper asking for volunteers without college education, school age children, even four-year-olds. They all behave like good intuitive grammarians: they inflect verbs that come from nouns differently from plain old verbs.
So is there anyone, anywhere, who does not grasp the principle?
Yes—the language mavens. Look up broadcasted in Theodore Bernstein's The Careful Writer, and here is what you will find:
If you think you have correctly forecasted the immediate future of English and have casted your lot with the permissivists, you may be receptive to broadcasted, at least in radio usage, as are some dictionaries. The rest of us, however, will decide that no matter how desirable it may be to convert all irregular verbs into regular ones, this cannot be done by ukase, nor can it be accomplished overnight. We shall continue to use broadcast as the past tense and participle, feeling that there is no reason for broadcasted other than one of analogy or consistency or logic, which the permissivists themselves so often scorn. Nor is this position inconsistent with our position on flied, the baseball term, which has a real reason for being. The fact—the inescapable fact—is that there are some irregular verbs.Bernstein's "real reason" for flied is that it has a specialised meaning in baseball, but that is the wrong reason; see a bet, cut a deal, and take the count all have specialized meanings, but they get to keep their irregular pasts saw, cut, and took, rather than switching to seed, cutted, faked. No, the real reason is that to fly out means to hit a fly, and a fly is a noun. And the reason that people say broadcasted is the same: not that they want to convert all irregular verbs into regular ones overnight, but that they mentally analyze the verb to broadcast as "to make a broadcast," that is, as coming from the much more common noun a broadcast. (The original meaning of the verb, "to disperse seeds," is now obscure except among gardeners.) As a verb based on a noun, to broadcast is not eligible to have its own idiosyncratic past-tense form, so nonmavens sensibly apply the "add -ed" rule.
I am obliged to discuss one more example: the much-vilified hopefully. A sentence like Hopefully, the treaty will pass is said to be a grave error. The adverb hopefully comes from the adjective hopeful, meaning "in a manner full of hope." Therefore, the mavens say, it should be used only when the sentence refers to a person who is doing something in a hopeful manner. If it is the writer or reader who is hopeful, one should say It is hoped that the treaty will pass, or
If hopes are realized, the treaty will pass, or I hope that the treaty will pass.
Now consider the following:
1. It is simply not true that an English adverb must indicate the manner in which the actor performs the action. Adverbs come in two kinds: "verb phrase" adverbs like carefully, which do refer to the actor, and "sentence" adverbs like frankly, which indicate the attitude of the speaker toward the content of the sentence. Other examples of sentence adverbs include:accordingly, curiously, oddlyNote that many of these fine sentence adverbs, like happily, honestly, and mercifully, come from verb phrase adverbs, and they are virtually never ambiguous in context. The use of hopefully as a sentence adverb, which has been around in writing at least since the 1930s (according to the Oxford English Dictionary) and in speech well before then, is a perfectly sensible application of this derivational process.
admittedly, generally, parenthetically
alarmingly, happily, predictably
amazingly, honestly, roughly
basically, ideally, seriously
bluntly, incidentally, strikingly
candidly, intriguingly, supposedly
confidentially, mercifully, understandably
2. The suggested alternatives It is hoped that and If hopes are realized display four famous sins of bad writing: passive voice, needless words, vagueness, pomposity.
3. The suggested alternatives do not mean the same thing as hopefully, so the ban would leave certain thoughts unexpressible. Hopefully makes a hopeful prediction, whereas I hope that and It is hoped that merely describe certain people's mental states. Thus you can say I hope that the treaty will pass, but it isn't likely, but it would be odd to say Hopefully, the treaty will pass, but it isn't likely.
4. We are supposed to use hopefully only as a verb phrase adverb, as in the following:
Hopefully, Larry hurled the ball toward the basket with one second left in the game.383
Hopefully, Melvin turned the record over and sat back down on the couch eleven centimeters closer to Ellen.
Call me uncouth, call me ignorant, but these sentences do not belong to any language that I speak.
Imagine that one day someone announced that everyone has been making a grievous error. The correct name for the city in Ohio that people call Cleveland is really Cincinnati, and the correct name for the city that people call Cincinnati is really Cleveland. The expert gives no reasons, but insists that that is what is correct, and that anyone who cares about the language must immediately change the way that he (yes, he, not they) refers to the cities, regardless of the confusion and expense. You would surely think that this person is insane. But when a columnist or editor makes a similar pronouncement about hopefully, he is called an upholder of literacy and high standards.
I have debunked nine myths of the generic language maven, and now I would like to examine the mavens themselves. People who set themselves up as language experts differ in their goals, expertise, and common sense, and it is only fair to discuss them as individuals.
The most common kind of maven is the wordwatcher (a term invented by the biologist and wordwatcher Lewis Thomas). Unlike linguists, wordwatchers train their binoculars on the especially capricious, eccentric, and poorly documented words and idioms that get sighted from time to time. Sometimes a wordwatcher is a scholar in some other field, like Thomas or Quine, who indulges a lifelong hobby by writing a charming book on word origins. Sometimes it is a journalist assigned to the Question & Answer column of a newspaper. Here is a recent example from Ask the Globe:
Q. When we want to irritate someone, why do we say we want "to get his goat"? J.E, Boston
A. Slang experts aren't entirely sure, but some claim the expression comes from an old race track tradition of putting a goat in the same stall as a high-strung racing thoroughbred to keep the horse calm. Nineteenth century gamblers sometimes stole the goat to unnerve
the horse and throw the race. Hence, the expression "get your goat."
This kind of explanation is satirized in Woody Allen's "Slang Origins":
How many of you have wondered where certain slang expressions come from? Like "She's the cat's pajamas," or to "take it on the lam." Neither have I. And yet for those who are interested in this sort of thing I have provided a brief guide to a few of the more interesting origins.
... "Take it on the lam" is English in origin. Years ago, in England, "lamming" was a game played with dice and a large tube of ointment. Each player in turn threw dice and then skipped around the room until he hemorrhaged. If a person threw seven or under he would say the word "quintz" and proceed to turn in a frenzy. If he threw over seven, he was forced to give every player a portion of his feathers and was given a good "lamming." Three "lammings" and a player was "kwirled" or declared a moral bankrupt. Gradually any game with feathers was called "lamming" and feathers became "lams." To "take it on the lam" meant to put on feathers and later, to escape, although the transition is unclear.
This passage captures my reaction to the wordwatchers. I don't think they do any harm, but (a) I never completely believe their explanations, and (b) in most cases I don't really care. Years ago a columnist recounted the origin of the word pumpernickel. During one of his campaigns in central Europe Napoleon stopped at an inn and was served a loaf of coarse, dark, sour bread. Accustomed to the delicate white baguettes of Paris, he sneered, "C'est pain pour Nicole," Nicole being his horse. When the columnist was challenged (the dictionaries say the word comes from colloquial German, meaning "farting goblin"), he confessed that he and some buddies had made up the story in a bar the night before. For me, wordwatching for its own sake has all the intellectual excitement of stamp collecting, with the added twist that an undetermined number of your stamps are counterfeit.
At the opposite end of the temperamental spectrum one finds the Jeremiahs, expressing their bitter laments and righteous prophecies of doom. An eminent dictionary editor, language columnist, and usage expert once wrote, quoting a poet:
As a poet, there is only one political duty and that is to defend one's language from corruption. And that is particularly serious now. It is being corrupted. When it is corrupted, people lose faith in what they hear, and that leads to violence.
The linguist Dwight Bolinger, gently urging this man to get a grip, had to point out that "the same number of muggers would leap out of the dark if everyone conformed overnight to every prescriptive rule ever written."
In recent years the loudest Jeremiah has been the critic John Simon, whose venomous film and theater reviews are distinguished by their lengthy denunciations of actresses' faces. Here is a representative opening to one of his language columns:
The English language is being treated nowadays exactly as slave traders once handled the merchandise in their slave ships, or as the inmates of concentration camps were dealt with by their Nazi jailers.
The grammatical error that inspired this tasteless comparison, incidentally, was Tip O'Neill's redundantly referring to his "fellow colleagues," which Simon refers to as "the rock bottom of linguist)< ineptitude." Speaking of Black English Vernacular, Simon writes:
Why should we consider some, usually poorly educated, subculture's notion of the relationship between sound and meaning? And how could a grammar—any grammar—possibly describe that relationship?
As for "I be," "you be," "he be," etc., which should give us all the heebie-jeebies, these may indeed be comprehensible, but they go against all accepted classical and modern grammars and are the product not of a language with roots in history but of ignorance of how language works.
There is no point in refuting this malicious know-nothing, for he is not participating in any sincere discussion. Simon has simply discovered the trick used with great effectiveness by certain comedians talk-show hosts, and punk-rock musicians: people of modest talent can attract the attention of the media, at least for a while, by being unrelentingly offensive.
The third kind of language maven is the entertainer, who shows off his collection of palindromes, puns, anagrams, rebuses, malapropisms, Goldwynisms, eponyms, sesquipedalia, howlers, and bloopers. Entertainers like Willard Espy, Dimitri Borgman, Gyles Brandreth, and Richard Lederer write books with titles like Words at Play, Language on Vacation, The Joy of Lex, and Anguished English. These rollicking exhibitions of linguistic zaniness are all in good fun, but when reading them I occasionally feel like Jacques Cousteau at a dolphin show, longing that these magnificent creatures be allowed to shake off their hula skirts and display their far more interesting natural talents in a dignified setting. Here is a typical example from Lederer:
When we take the time to explore the paradoxes and vagaries of English, we find that hot dogs can be cold, darkrooms can be lit, homework can be done in school, nightmares can take place in broad daylight while morning sickness and daydreaming can take place at night....
Sometimes you have to believe that all English speakers should be committed to an asylum for the verbally insane. In what other language do people drive in a parkway and park in a driveway? In what other language do people recite at a play and play at a recital?... How can a slim chance and a fat chance be the same, while a wise man and a wise guy are opposites? . . . Doughnut holes: Aren't these little treats doughnut balls? The holes are what's left in the original doughnut.... They're head over heels in love. That's nice, but all of us do almost everything head over heels. If we are trying to create an image of people doing cartwheels and somersaults, why don't we say, They're heels over heal in love?
Objection! (1) Everyone senses the difference between a compound, which can have a conventional meaning of its own, like any other word, and a phrase, whose meaning is determined by the meanings of its parts and the rules that put them together. A compound is pronounced with one stress pattern (darkroom) and a phrase is pronounced with another (dark room). The supposedly "crazy" expressions, like hot dog and morning sickness, are obviously compounds, not phrases, so cold hot dogs and nighttime morning sickness do not violate grammatical logic in the least. (2) Isn't it obvious that
fat chance and wise guy are sarcastic? (3) Donut holes, the trade name of a product of Dunkin' Donuts, is intentionally whimsical—did someone not get the joke? (4) The preposition over has several meanings, including a static arrangement, as in Bridge over troubled water, and the path of a moving object, as in The quick brown fox Jumped over the lazy dog. Head over heels involves the second meaning, describing the motion, not the position, of the inamorato's head.
I must also say something in defense of the college students, welfare applicants, and Joe Sixpacks whose language is so often held up to ridicule by the entertainers. Cartoonists and dialogue writers know that you can make anyone look like a bumpkin by rendering his speech quasi-phonetically instead of with conventional spelling ("sez," "cum," "wimmin," "hafta," "crooshul," and so on). Lederer occasionally resorts to this cheap trick in "Howta Reckanize American Slurvian," which deplores unremarkable examples of English phonological processes like "coulda" and "could of" (could have), "forced" (forest), "granite" (granted), "neck store" (next door), and "then" (than). As we saw in Chapter 6, everyone but a science fiction robot slurs their speech (yes, their speech, dammit) in systematic ways.
Lederer also reproduces lists of "howlers" from student term papers, automobile insurance claim forms, and welfare applications, familiar to many people as faded mimeos tacked on the bulletin boards of university and government offices:
In accordance with your instructions I have given birth to twins in the enclosed envelope.388
My husband got his project cut off two weeks ago and I haven't had any relief since.
An invisible car came out of nowhere, struck my car, and vanished.
The pedestrian had no idea which direction to go, so I ran over him.
Artificial insemination is when the farmer does it to the cow instead of the bull.
The girl tumbled down the stairs and lay prostitute on the bottom.
Moses went up on Mount Cyanide to get the ten commandments. He died before he ever reached Canada.
These lists are good for a few laughs, but there is something you should know before you conclude that the teeming masses are comically inept at writing. Most of the howlers are probably fabrications.
The folklorist Jan Brunvand has documented hundreds of "urban legends," intriguing stories that everyone swears happened to a friend of a friend ("FOAF" technical term), and that circulate for years in nearly identical form in city after city, but that can never be documented as real events. The Hippie Baby Sitter, Alligators in the Sewers, the Kentucky Fried Rat, and Halloween Sadists (the ones who put razor blades in apples) are some of the more famous tales. The howlers, it turns out, are examples of a subgenre called xeroxlore. The employee who posts one of these lists admits that he did not compile the items himself but took them from a list someone gave him, which were taken from another list, which excerpted letters that someone in some office somewhere really did receive. Nearly identical lists have been circulating since World War I, and have been independently credited to offices in New England, Alabama, Salt Lake City, and so on. As Brunvand notes, the chances seem slim that the same amusing double entendres are made in so many separate locations over so many years. The advent of electronic mail has quickened the creation and dissemination of these lists, and I receive one every now and again. But I smell intentional facetiousness (whether it is from the student or the professor is not clear), not accidentally hilarious incompetence, in howlers like "adamant: pertaining to original sin" and "gubernatorial: having to do with peanuts."
The final kind of maven is the sage, typified by the late Theodore Bernstein, a New York Times editor and the author of the delightful handbook The Careful Writer, and William Safire. They are known for taking a moderate, common-sense approach to matters of usage, and they tease their victims with wit rather than savaging them with invective. I enjoy reading the sages, and have nothing but awe for a pen like Safire's that can summarize the content of an anti-pornography statute as "It isn't the teat, it's the tumidity." But the sad fact is that even a sage like Safire, the closest thing we have to an enlightened language pundit, misjudges the linguistic sophistication of the common speaker and as a result misses the target in many of his commen
taries. this charge, I will walk you through a single column of his, from The New York Times Magazine of October 4, 1992.
The column had three stories, discussing six examples of questionable usage. The first story was a nonpartisan analysis of supposed pronoun case errors made by the two candidates in the 1992 U.S. presidential election. George Bush had recently adopted the slogan "Who do you trust?," alienating schoolteachers across the nation who noted that who is a "subject pronoun" (nominative or subjective case) and the question is asking about the object of trust (accusative or objective case). One would say You do trust him, not You do trust he, and so the question word should be whom, not who.
This, of course, is one of the standard prescriptivist complaints about common speech. In reply, one might point out that the who/ whom distinction is a relic of the English case system, abandoned by nouns centuries ago and found today only among pronouns in distinctions like he/him. Even among pronouns, the old distinction between subject ye and object you has vanished, leaving you to play both roles and ye as sounding completely archaic. Whom has outlived ye but is clearly moribund; it now sounds pretentious in most spoken contexts. No one demands of Bush that he say Whom do ye trust? If the language can bear the loss of ye, using you for both subjects and objects, why insist on clinging to whom, when everyone uses who for both subjects and objects?
Safire, with his enlightened attitude toward usage, recognizes the problem and proposes
Safire's Law of Who/Whom, which forever solves the problem troubling writers and speakers caught between the pedantic and the incorrect: "When whom is correct, recast the sentence." Thus, instead of changing his slogan to "Whom do you trust?"—making him sound like a hypereducated Yalie stiff—Mr. Bush would win back the purist vote with "Which candidate do you trust?"
But Safire's recommendation is Solomonic in the sense of being an unacceptable pseudo-compromise. Telling people to avoid a problematic construction sounds like common sense, but in the case of object questions with who, it demands an intolerable sacrifice. People ask questions about the objects of verbs and prepositions a lot. Here are
just a few examples I culled from transcripts of conversations between parents and their children:
I know, but who did we see at the other store?
Who did we see on the way home?
Who did you play with outside tonight?
Abe, who did you play with today at school?
Who did you sound like?
(Imagine replacing any of these with whom!) Safire's advice is to change such questions to Which person or Which child. But the advice would have people violate the most important maxim of good prose: Omit needless words. It also would force them to overuse the word which, described by one stylist as "the ugliest word in the English language." Finally, it subverts the supposed goal of rules of usage, which is to allow people to express their thoughts as clearly and precisely as possible. A question like Who did we see on the way home? can embrace one person, many people, or any combination or number of adults, babies, children, and familiar dogs. Any specific substitution like Which person? forecloses some of these possibilities, contrary to the question-asker's intent. And how in the world would you apply Safire's Law to the famous refrain
Who're you gonna call? GHOSTBUSTERS!
Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice. Safire should have taken his observation about the pedantic sound of whom to its logical conclusion and advised the president that there is no reason to change the slogan, at least no grammatical reason.
Turning to the Democrats, Safire gets on Bill Clinton's case, as he puts it, for asking voters to "give Al Gore and I a chance to bring America back." No one would say give I a break, because the indirect object of give must have accusative case. So it should be give Al Gore and me a chance.
Probably no "grammatical error" has received as much scorn as "misuse" of pronoun case inside conjunctions (phrases containing two elements joined by and or or). What teenager has not been
corrected for saying Me and Jennifer are going to the mall? A colleague of mine recalls that when she was twelve, her mother would not allow her to have her ears pierced until she stopped saying it. The standard story is that the accusative pronoun me does not belong in subject position—no one would say Me is going to the mall—so it should be Jennifer and l. People tend to misremember the advice as "When in doubt, 'say so-and-so and I,' not 'so-and-so and me,'" so they unthinkingly overapply it—a process linguists call hypercorrection— resulting in "mistakes" like give Al Gore and I a chance and the even more despised between you and I.
But if the person on the street is so good at avoiding Me isgoing and Give I a break, and if even Ivy League professors and former Rhodes Scholars can't seem to avoid Me and Jennifer are going and Give Al and I a chance, might it not be the mavens that misunderstand English grammar, not the speakers? The mavens' case about case rests on one assumption: if an entire conjunction phrase has a grammatical feature like subject case, every word inside that phrase has to have that grammatical feature, too. But that is just false.
Jennifer is singular; you say Jennifer is, not Jennifer are. The pronoun She is singular; you say She is, not She are. But the conjunction She and Jennifer is not singular, it's plural; you say She and Jennifer are, not She and Jennifer is. So if a conjunction can have a different grammatical number from the pronouns inside it (She and Jennifer are), why must it have the same grammatical case as the pronouns inside it (Give Al Gore and I a chance)? The answer is that it need not. A conjunction is an example of a "headless" construction. Recall that the head of a phrase is the word that stands for the whole phrase. In the phrase the tall blond man with one black shoe, the head is the word man, because the entire phrase gets its properties from man— the phrase refers to a kind of man, and is third person singular, because that's what man is. But a conjunction has no head; it is not the same as any of its parts. If John and Marsha met, it does not mean that John met and that Marsha met. If voters give Clinton and Gore a chance, they are not giving Gore his own chance, added on to the chance they are giving Clinton; they are giving the entire ticket a chance. So just because Me and Jennifer is a subject that requires subject case, it does not mean that Me is a subject that requires subject case, and just because Al Gore and I is an object that requires object case, it does not mean that I is an object that requires object case.
On grammatical grounds, the pronoun is free to have any case it wants. The linguist Joseph Emonds analyzed the Me and Jennifer/ Between you and I phenomenon in great technical detail. He concludes that the language that the mavens want us to speak is not only not English, it is not a possible human language!
In the second story of his column, Safire replies to a diplomat who received a government warning about "crimes against tourists (primarily robberies, muggings, and pick-pocketings)." The diplomat writes,
Note the State Department's choice of pick-pocketings. Isthe doer of such deeds a pickpocket or a pocket-picker?
Safire replies, "The sentence should read 'robberies, muggings and pocket-pickings.' One picks pockets; no one pockets picks."
Significantly, Safire did not answer the question. If the perpetrator were called a pocket-picker, which is the most common kind of compound in English, then indeed the crime would be pocket-picking. But the name for the perpetrator is not really up for grabs; we all agree that he is called a pickpocket. And if he is called a pickpocket, not a pocket-picker, then what he does can perfectly well be called pick-pocketing, not pocket-picking, thanks to the ever-present English noun-to-verb conversion process, just as a cook cooks, a chair chairs, and a host hosts. The fact that no one pockets picks is a red herring—who said anything about a pick-pocketer?
The thing that is confusing Safire is that pickpocket is a special kind of compound, because it is headless—it is not a kind of pocket, as one would expect, but a kind of person. And though it is exceptional, it is not unique; there is a whole family of such exceptions. One of the delights of English is its colorful cast of characters denoted by headless compounds, compounds that describe a person by what he does or has rather than by what he is:
This list (sounding vaguely like a dramatic personae from Damon Runyon) shows that virtually everything in language falls into systematic patterns, even the seeming exceptions, if only you bother to look for them.
The third story deconstructs a breathless quote from Barbra Streisand, describing tennis star Andre Agassi:
He's very, very intelligent; very, very, sensitive, very evolved; more than his linear years.... He plays like a Zen master. It's very in the moment.
Safire first speculates on the origin of Streisand's use of evolved: "Its change from the active to passive voice—from 'he evolved from the Missing Link' to 'He is evolved'—was probably influenced by the adoption of involved as a compliment."
These kinds of derivations have been studied intensively in linguistics, but Safire shows here that he does not understand how they work. He seems to think that people change words by being vaguely reminded of rhyming ones—evolved from involved, a kind of malapropism. But in fact people are not that sloppy and literal-minded. The lexical creations we have looked at—Let me caveat that, They deteriorated the health care system, Boggs flied out to center field—are based not on rhymes but on abstract rules that change a word's part-of-speech category and its cast of role-players, in the same precise ways across dozens or hundreds of words. For example, the transitive to deteriorate the health care system comes from the intransitive the health care system deteriorated in the same way that the transitive to /freak the glass comes from the intransitive the glass broke. Let's see, then, where evolved might have come from.
Safire's suggestion that it is an active-to-passive switch based on involved does not work at all. For involved, we can perhaps imagine a derivation from the active voice:
Raising the child involved John. (active) ®
John was involved in raising his child. (passive) ®
John is very involved.
But for evolved, the parallel derivation would require a passive sentence, and before that an active sentence, that do not exist (I have marked them with asterisks):
*Many experiences evolved John. ®
*John was evolved by many experiences. (or) *John evolved in many experiences. ®John is very evolved.
Also, if you're involved, it means that something involves you (you're the object), whereas if you're evolved, it means that you have been doing some evolving (you're the subject).
The problem is that the conversion of evolved from to very evolved is not a switch from the active voice of a verb to the passive voice, as in Andre beat Boris ® Boris was beaten by Andre. The source Safire mentions, evolved from, is intransitive in modern English, with no direct object. To passivize a verb in English you convert the direct object into a subject, so is evolved could only have been passivized from Something evolved Andre, which does not exist. Safire's explanation is like saying you can take Bill bicycled from Lexington and change it to Bill isbicycled and then to Bill is very bicycled.
This breakdown is a good illustration of one of the main scandals of the language mavens: they show lapses in the most elementary problems of grammatical analysis, like figuring out the pan-of-speech category of a word. Safire refers to the active and passive voice, two forms of a verb. But is Barbra using evolved as a verb? One of the major discoveries of modern generative grammar is that the part of speech of a word—noun, verb, adjective—is not a label assigned by convenience but an actual mental category that can be verified by experimental assays, just as a chemist can verify whether a gem is a diamond or zirconium. These tests are a standard homework problem in the introductory course that linguists everywhere call Baby Syntax. The method is to find as many constructions as you can in which words that are clear-cut examples of a category, and no other kind of word, can appear. Then when you are faced with a word whose category you do not know, you can see whether it can appear in that set of constructions with some natural interpretation. By these tests we can determine, for example, that the language maven Jacques
Barzun earned an "F" when he called a possessive noun like Wellington's an adjective (as before, I have placed asterisks beside the phrases that sound wrong):
1. very X: very intelligent
2. seems X: He seems intelligent5. a Adj X Adj N: a funny, intelligent old friend
3. How X: How intelligent is he?
4. more X than: more intelligent than
6. un-X: unintelligent
*This seems Wellington's*un-Wellington's
*How Wellington's is this ring?
*more Wellington's than
*a funny, Wellington's old friend
Now let's apply this kind of test to Barbra's evolved, comparing it to a clear-cut verb in the passive voice like was kissed by a passionate lover (odd-sounding constructions are marked with an asterisk):
1. very evolved / *very kissed
2. He seems evolved / *He seems kissed
3. How evolved is he? / *How kissed is he?
4. He is more evolved now than he was last year / *He is more kissed now than he was yesterdayObviously, evolved does not behave like the passive voice of a verb; it behaves like an adjective. Safire was misled because adjectives can look like verbs in the passive voice and are clearly related to them, but they are not the same thing. This is the source of the running joke in the Bob Dylan song "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35":
5. a thoughtful, evolved, sweet friend / *a tall, kissed, thoughtful man
6. He was unevolved / *He was unkissed by a passionate lover
They'll stone you when you're riding in your car.
They'll stone you when you're playing your guitar.
But I would not feel so all alone.
Everybody must get stoned.
This discovery steers us toward the real source of evolved. Since it is an adjective, not a verb in the passive voice, we no longer have to worry about the absence of the corresponding active voice sentence. To trace its roots, we must find a rule in English that creates adjectives from intransitive verbs. There is such a rule. It applies to the participle form of a certain class of intransitive verbs that refer to a change of state (what linguists call "unaccusative" verbs), and creates a corresponding adjective:
time that has elapsed ® elapsed time
a leaf that has fallen ® a fallen leaf
a man who has traveled widely ® a widely traveled man
a testicle that has not descended into the scrotum ® an
a Christ that has risen from the dead ® a risen Christ
a window that has stuck ® a stuck window
the snow which has drifted ® the drifted snow
a Catholic who has lapsed ® a lapsed Catholic
a lung that has collapsed ® a collapsed lung
a writer who has failed ® a failed writer
Take this rule and apply it to a tennis player who has evolved, and you get an evolved player. This solution also allows us to make sense of Streisand's meaning. When a verb is converted from the active to the passive voice, the verb's meaning is conserved. Dog bites man = Man is bitten by dog. But when a verb is converted to an adjective, the adjective can acquire idiosyncratic nuances. Not every woman who has fallen is a fallen woman, and if someone stones you you are not necessarily stoned. We all evolved from a missing link, but not all of us are evolved in the sense of being more spiritually sophisticated than our contemporaries.
Safire then rebukes Streisand for more than his linear years. He says,
Linear means "direct, uninterrupted"; it has gained a pejorative vogue sense of "unimaginative," as in linear thinking, in contrast to
insightful, inspired leaps of genius. I think what Ms. Streisand had in mind was "beyond his chronological years," which is better expressed as simply "beyond his years." You can see what she was getting at—the years lined up in an orderly fashion—but even in the anything-goes world of show-biz lingo, not everything goes. Strike the set on linear.
Like many language mavens, Safire the precision and aptness of slang especially slang borrowed from technical fields. Streisand obviously is not using the sense of linear from Euclidean geometry, meaning "the shortest route between two points," and the associated image of years lined up in an orderly fashion. She is using the sense taken from analytic geometry, meaning "proportional" or "additive." If you take a piece of graph paper and plot the distance traveled at constant speed against the time that has elapsed, you get a straight line. This is called a linear relationship; for every hour that passes, you've traveled another 55 miles. In contrast, if you plot the amount of money in your compound-interest account, you get a nonlinear curve that swerves upward; as you leave your money in longer, the amount of interest you accrue in a year gets larger and larger. Streisand is implying that Agassi's level of evolvedness is not proportional to his age: whereas most people fall on a straight line that assigns them X spiritual units of evolvedness for every year they have lived, this young man's evolvedness has been compounding, and he floats above the line, with more units than his age would ordinarily entitle him to. Now, I cannot be sure that this is what Streisand had in mind (at the time of this writing, she has not replied to my inquiry), but this sense of linear is common in contemporary techno-pop cant (like feedback, systems, holism, interface, and synergistic), and it is unlikely that she blundered into a perfectly apt usage by accident, as Safire's analysis would imply.
Finally, Safire comments on very in the moment:
This very calls attention to the use of a preposition or a noun as a modifier, as in "It's very in," or "It's very New York," or the ultimate fashion compliment, "It's very you." To be very in the moment (perhaps a variation of of the moment or upto the minute) appears to be a loose translation of the French au courant, variously translated as " up to date, fashionable, with-it."
Once again, by patronizing Streisand's language, Safire has misanalyzed both its form and its meaning. He has not noticed that: (1) The word very is not connected to the preposition in; it's connected to the entire prepositional phrase in the moment. (2) Streisand is not using the intransitive in, with its special sense of "fashionable"; she is using the conventional transitive in with a noun phrase object, the moment. (3) Her use of a prepositional phrase as if it was an adjective to describe some mental or emotional state follows a common pattern in English: under the weather, out of character, off the wall, in the dumps, out to lunch, on the hall, in good spirits, on top of the world, out of his mind, and in love. (4) It's unlikely that Streisand was trying to say that Agassi is au courant or fashionable; that would be a putdown implying shallowness, not a compliment. Her reference to Zen makes her meaning entirely clear: that Agassi is very good at shutting out distractions and concentrating on the game or person he is involved with at that moment.
So these are the language mavens. Their foibles can be blamed on two blind spots. One is a gross underestimation of the linguistic wherewithal of the common person. I am not saying that everything that comes out of a person's mouth or pen is perfectly rule-governed (remember Dan Quayle). But the language mavens would have a much better chance of not embarrassing themselves if they saved the verdict of linguistic incompetence for the last resort rather than jumping to it as a first conclusion. People come out with laughable verbiage when they feel they ate in a forum demanding an elevated, formal style and know that their choice of words could have momentous consequences for them. That is why the fertile sources of howlers tend to be politicians' speeches, welfare application letters, and student term papers (assuming there is some grain of truth in the reports). In less self-conscious settings, common people, no matter how poorly educated, obey sophisticated grammatical laws, and can express themselves with a vigor and grace that captivates those who listen seriously—linguists, journalists, oral historians, novelists with an ear for dialogue.
The other blind spot of the language mavens is their complete ignorance of the modern science of language—and I don't mean just the formal apparatus of Chomskyan theory, but basic knowledge of what kinds of constructions and idioms are found in English, and how people use them and pronounce them. In all fairness, much of the
blame falls on members of my own profession for being so reluctant to apply our knowledge to the practical problems of style and usage and to everyone's natural curiosity about why people talk the way they do. With a few exceptions like Joseph Emonds, Dwight Bolinger, Robin Lakoff, James McCawley, and Geoffrey Nunberg, mainstream American linguists have left the field entirely to the mavens—or, as Bolinger calls them, the shamans. He has summed up the situation:
In language there are no licensed practitioners, but the woods are full of midwives, herbalists, colonic irrigationists, bonesetters, and general-purpose witch doctors, some abysmally ignorant, others with a rich fund of practical knowledge—whom we shall lump together and call shamans. They require our attention not only because they fill a lack but because they are almost the only people who make the news when language begins to cause trouble and someone must answer the cry for help. Sometimes their advice is sound. Sometimes it is worthless, but still it is sought because no one knows where else to turn. We are living in an African village and Albert Schweitzer has not arrived yet.
So what should be done about usage? Unlike some academics in the 1960s, I am not saying that instruction in standard English grammar and composition is a tool to perpetuate an oppressive white patriarchal capitalist status quo and that The People should be liberated to write however they please. Some aspects of how people express themselves in some settings are worth trying to change. What I am calling for is innocuous: a more thoughtful discussion of language and how people use it, replacing bubbe-maises (old wives' tales) with the best scientific knowledge available. It is especially important that we not underestimate the sophistication of the actual cause of any instance of language use: the human mind.
It is ironic that the jeremiads wailing about how sloppy language leads to sloppy thought are themselves hairballs of loosely associated factoids and tangled non sequiturs. All the examples of verbal behavior that the complainer takes exception to for any reason are packed together in one unappealing mass and coughed up as proof of The Decline of the Language: teenage slang, sophistry, regional variations in pronunciation and diction, bureaucratic bafflegab, poor spelling
and punctuation, pseudo-errors like hopefully, badly crafted prose, government euphemism, nonstandard grammar like ain't, misleading advertising, and so on (not to mention deliberate witticisms that go over the complainer's head).
I hope to have convinced you of two things. Many prescriptive rules of grammar are just plain dumb and should be deleted from the usage handbooks. And most of standard English is just that, standard, in the same sense that certain units of currency or household voltages are said to be standard. It is just common sense that people should be given every encouragement and opportunity to learn the dialect that has become the standard one in their society and to employ it in many formal settings. But there is no need to use terms like "bad grammar," "fractured syntax," and "incorrect usage" when referring to rural and black dialects. Though I am no fan of "politically correct" euphemism (in which, according to the satire, white woman should be replaced by melanin-impoverished person of gender), using terms like "bad grammar" for "nonstandard" is both insulting and scientifically inaccurate.
As for slang, I'm all for it! Some people worry that slang will somehow "corrupt" the language. We should be so lucky. Most slang lexicons are preciously guarded by their subcultures as membership badges. When given a glimpse into one of these lexicons, no true language-lover can fail to be dazzled by the brilliant wordplay and wit: from medical students (Zorro-belly, crispy critter, prune), rappers (jaw-jacking, hissing), students (studmuffin, veg out, blow off), surfers gnarlacious,geeklified), and hackers (to flame, core-dump, crufty). When the more passe terms get cast off and handed down to the mainstream, they often fill expressive gaps in the language beautifully. I don't know how I ever did without to flame (protest selfrighteously), to dis (express disrespect for), and to blow off (dismiss an obligation), and there are thousands of now-unexceptionable English words like clever, fun, sham, banter, mob, stingy, bully, junkie, and jazz that began life as slang. It is especially hypocritical to oppose linguistic innovations reflexively and at the same time to decry the loss of distinctions like lie versus lay on the pretext of preserving expressive power. Vehicles for expressing thought are being created far more quickly than they are being lost.
There is probably a good explanation for the cult of inarticulateness, where speech is punctuated with you know, like, sort of, I mean,
and so on. Everyone maintains a number of ways of speaking that are appropriate to different contexts defined by the status and solidarity they feel with respect to their interlocutor. It seems that younger Americans try to maintain lower levels of social distance than older generations are used to. I know many gifted prose stylists my age whose one-on-one speech is peppered with sort of and you know, their attempt to avoid affecting the stance of the expert who feels entitled to lecture the conversational partner with confident pronouncements. Some people find it grating, but most speakers can turn it off at will, and I find it no worse than the other extreme, certain older academics who hold court during social gatherings, pontificating eloquently to their trapped junior audiences.
The aspect of language use that is most worth changing is the clarity and style of written prose. Expository writing requires language to express far more complex trains of thought than it was biologically designed to do. Inconsistencies caused by limitations of short-term memory and planning, unnoticed in conversation, are not as tolerable when preserved on a page that is to be perused more leisurely. Also, unlike a conversational partner, a reader will rarely share enough background assumptions to interpolate all the missing premises that make language comprehensible. Overcoming one's natural egocentrism and trying to anticipate the knowledge state of a generic reader at every stage of the exposition is one of the most important tasks in writing well. All this makes writing a difficult craft that must be mastered through practice, instruction, feedback, and—probably most important—intensive exposure to good examples. There are excellent manuals of composition that discuss these and other skills with great wisdom, like Strunk and White's The Elements of Style and Williams's Style: Toward Clarity and Grace. What is most relevant to my point is how removed their practical advice is from the trivia of split infinitives and slang. For example, a banal but universally acknowledged key to good writing is to revise extensively. Good writers go through anywhere from two to twenty drafts before releasing a paper. Anyone who does not appreciate this necessity is going to be a bad writer. Imagine a Jeremiah exclaiming, "Our language today is threatened by an insidious enemy: the youth are not revising their drafts enough times." Kind of takes the fun out, doesn't it? It's not something that can be blamed on television, rock music, shopping mall culture, overpaid athletes, or any of the other signs of the decay
of civilization. But if it's clear writing that we want, this is the kind of homely remedy that is called for.
Finally, a confession. When I hear someone use disinterested to mean "apathetic," I am apt to go into a rage. Disinterested (Isuppose I must explain that it means "unbiased") is such a lovely word: it is ever-so-subtly different from impartial or unbiased in implying that the person has no stake in the matter, not that he is merely committed to being even-handed out of personal principle. It gets this fine meaning from its delicate structure: interest means "stake," as in conflict of interest and financial interest; adding -ed to a noun can make it pertain to someone that owns the referent of that noun, as in moneyed, one-eyed, or hook-nosed; dis- negates the combination. The grammatical logic reveals itself in the similarly structured disadvantaged, disaffected, disillusioned, disjointed, and dispossessed. Since we already have the word uninterested, there can be no reason to rob discerning language-lovers of disinterested by merging their meanings, except as a tacky attempt to sound more high-falutin'. And don't get me started on fortuitous and parameter . . .
Chill out, Professor. The original, eighteenth-century meaning of disinterested turns out to be—yes, "uninterested." And that, too, makes grammatical sense. The adjective interested meaning "engaged" (related to the participle of the verb to interest) is far more common than the noun interest meaning "stake," so dis- can be analyzed as simply negating that adjective, as in discourteous, dishonest, disloyal, disreputable, and the parallel dissatisfied and distrusted. But these rationalizations are beside the point. Every component of a language changes over time, and at any moment a language is enduring many losses. But since the human mind does not change over time, the richness of a language is always being replenished. Whenever any of us gets grumpy about some change in usage, we would do well to read the words of Samuel Johnson in the preface to his 1755 Dictionary, a reaction to the Jeremiahs of his day:
Those who have been persuaded to think well of my design, require that it should fix our language, and put a stop to those alterations which time and chance have hitherto been suffered to make in it without opposition. With this consequence I will confess that I have flattered myself for a while; but now begin to fear that I have indulged expectations which neither reason nor experience can
justify. When we see men grow old and die at a certain time one after another, from century to century, we laugh at the elixir that promises to prolong life to a thousand years; and with equal justice may the lexicographer be derided, who being able to produce no example of a nation that has preserved their words and phrases from mutability, shall imagine that his dictionary can embalm his language, and secure it from corruption and decay, that it is in his power to change sublunary nature, and clear the world at once from folly, vanity, and affectation. With this hope, however, academies have been instituted, to guard the avenues of their languages, to retain fugitives, and to repulse intruders; but their vigilance and activity have hitherto been vain; sounds are too volatile and subtle for legal restraints; to enchain syllables, and to lash the wind, are equally the undertakings of pride, unwilling to measure its desires by its strength.
Pinker, Stephen. 1994. The Language Instinct. How the mind creates language. New York NY: Morrow [Chapter 12], pp. 370-403