Saturday, July 21, 2007

Let him that is without syntax...

I'm not sure how this works with blog etiquette. I've been following what Mr. Verb has been saying lately about peevologists and I've been thinking about prescriptivism more broadly lately. I left a comment on one of his posts and I realized that this is becoming my cherished issue lately. I believe deeply in what I said (notice how important that "in" is to the statement") so I'm going to include it in this post with some minor changes. I ask you to pardon me for recycling.

According to Mr. Verb peevologist was coined by The Word's Jan Freeman. It is now an emerging term for those to whom we've long given other labels. Grammar Nazis, Grammar Police, Language Mavens (who are little more than picky pundits)...These are the people who try to make you believe that your natural and comfortable and best-known spoken language is false language--broken language--lazy and stubborn and destructive. The heaviest billy-clubs are swung by army of elitists who believe they can judge you into submission.

Vee haf vays of making you talk correctly.

What label works best for these people? There are some who work to teach and convince. We'll call them English teachers. They don't often complain about usage but they point out their students' mistakes. They usually work to indoctrinate their students into a new pattern of writing. The ambitious ones look to change their students' speech.

But there are others who simply like to complain. I would argue that they like being part of an remnant that uses 'correct' language and they rarely suggest methods by which a uniform change in speech can be accomplished. They call attention to those forms that annoy them and they simply call them bad and tell us what they prefer. Sometimes they try to support their views by logic or efficiency. But they don't value instruction. They believe a word to the wise is sufficient--which of course makes all who persist 'unwise.' How convenient. They don't care how language--real language--works.

I like that peevologist captures the intention of 'these people' to dwell on their peeves and constantly talk about them.

Now I start feeling like a nag when I call attention to claims about usage that disagree with me. And when any fact is asserted that I haven't accepted I feel an odd duty to my belief to speak up. Human nature. And don't their arguments deserve as as much attention as mine?

The distinction as I see it is in the object of intended influence. I hope to share (defend?) the view of language as a system that always has been and always will be dynamic. The view. I'm not defending language because it doesn't need my puny fists. It'll take care of itself.

I know plenty of copy editors that are fully aware of their role as menders of one text at a time and who don't claim to be guardians of language. They are not peevologists. They don't feel attacked by mistakes and they don't hope to change all language into one register. They respect decorum and they trust that most users do so as well as they do.

The peevologists are looking to change something that will not change. They seek a power that is not theirs and they express frustration based on a sense of entitlement that is not only arrogant but irrational. They hope to change the rotation of the earth and live with that constant frustration, throwing stones at every sunrise and sunset.

I'm now planning the syllabus for the history of the English language course that I will be teaching this fall. My objective: convince my students to put down the rocks and enjoy the colours.


  1. Working as a tutor at Ivy Tech, I often encounter students who are burdened with "high school" grammar rules (not starting a sentence with a conjunction or ending it with a preposition, etc.), while these same students seem unable to communicate their ideas in writing. This sort of thing is irritating to me for all the obvious reasons, but also because a few of these students will then conclude that I don't know what I'm talking about when I tell them to relax. I don't argue with them. It's not like following unnecessary prescriptions will make their writing bad--as long as it's understood that good writing entails more than not breaking a short list of rules.

    But like the Japanese alphabet, writing is about more than language, and a fairly static Standard English serves its purpose. You write with very good Standard English, so I'm assuming you agree with me. Some people (including a linguistics professor I could name!) seem to feel that following the standard is not important, especially in e-mails. I find their willful iconoclasm, or laziness, somewhat rude, as I would if someone gave me a careless handshake or farted at the dinner table. "This is not 'Nam, there are rules." The language mavens are the equivalent of Miss Manners or Dear Abby in the social etiquette world. They may take a good thing too far, but they balance out the slobs, so I guess they serve their purpose.

  2. Tho I hope not to come across as a prescriptivist it's true that in my writing I follow almost all those rules that our English teachers told us were important. But not all the rules.

    See what I did there?

    I do make a distinction between written and spoken language. I also make a distinction between choosing a voice and decrying all others.

    I've gotten emails from professors and other professionals that surprised me by their familiarity. Email is interesting that way. It has created a new arena for a colloquial register that is usually avoided in writing.

    Just as you do I tend towards a conservative voice/register in my emails until I know someone well enough to 'play around' with my writing. And there are some liberties I try very hard never to take. My spelling sometimes slips but I'm always trying no matter how relaxed my tone is. There are some expletives that I will only use illustratively. And probably only in a text that is dedicated to such a topic. It's only in rare and necessary circumstances.

    The table analogy is a good one. No matter how familiar I am with a person there are things that I would be embarrassed to do. Not because of right/wrong distinctions but because of style. In language those eruptions are harder to identify. Choosing to communicate my indifference to decorum by any expression (verbal or otherwise) is rude.

    But I'm getting away from language now.

  3. That title's peerless. As are the final two paragraphs.

    Nicely done.

  4. I find it helpful to remind students of (or introduce them to) the concept of register.

    Also to say that Standard is must that, Standard. Not Right or God-Given or Perfect. P-Diddy wore a suit in court.

  5. The reciprocal analogy works well. If he's going to distribute grains at a third-world famine which works best: three piece, spats and a pocket watch or jeans timberlands and a comfortable shirt?

    My most impressive professor Ralph G. Williams reminded me of the telling instructions his parents use to give him: "Mind your place boy!"

    In language it has become his primary consideration.

  6. Yeah, the title is brilliant, worthy of a t-shirt. Or an article. Anyway, I'm really glad that you've picked this up again and laid the case out in more detail.

  7. Call me an old-fashioned peevert, but I do wish you'd use an effing comma once in awhile. Take The Ridger's comment: without that inverted apostrophe, I would never have been able to turn 'must' into 'just'.

    Nothing like a bottle of whine and cheese . . .


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