Stop Fighting the “Good” Fight

Today is National (US) Grammar Day, one of the high holy days for language lovers (along with free ice-cream day at Ben & Jerry’s). Dorks like me paint it as a fun time to celebrate English, but let’s be honest: it’s a slyly divisive holiday that’s generally observed entirely by pointing out how other people are Englishing all wrong. (Never you, dear reader. You English perfectly). On National Grammar Day, pedants crow and everyone else cowers. There will be countless articles on everyone’s pet peeves and slideshows of apostrophe abuse. People will proudly declare themselves to be grammar nazis, as if it’s okay to just this once obliquely compare yourself to the most infamous genocidal nutjob in Western history. At least one writer will trot out the favorite metaphor among those who care about grammar: “fight the good fight.”

That will be the article which will cause me to roll my eyes and close the laptop, the article that will drive me to pick up one of the usage dictionaries I have on hand and chuck it as hard as I can against the couch. (No, not the wall! That’ll ruin the book, are you mad?) That will be the article that sets me sputtering and hissing like a teakettle boiling over. Most modern grammarians who are “fighting the good fight” have no idea what their own history is, and are doomed to repeat it.

First, an olive branch. I will concede that when the vast majority of English speakers talk about “grammar,” they are not talking about the narrow set of rules by which English words are inflected and interact within a sentence. Yes, I know that linguists love nothing more than to wander around like John the Baptist in the desert, yelling “THAT’S NOT GRAMMAR” whenever someone posts a picture of a misspelled parking sign on National Grammar Day. But descriptivists see how the wind is blowing, and we know that when people talk about someone having “good grammar,” they are talking about the whole megillah: good spelling, usage, consistent style, and–yes–for-reals linguist-type grammar.

And so it’s been since the 17th century. English grammars were born out of etiquette books written for the new 17th-century middle class. The 16th and 17th centuries were a time of huge economic expansion in parts of England, and merchants, lawyers, and other déclassé people were making bank and movin’ on up. In order to move in the best circles–circles that they could now buy their way into–they needed to know the best manners. There was a booming trade in instructive books for the English tradesman–books that taught them how to behave at concerts and at table, how to handle reprobate servants in a fair yet gentlemanly way, how to write letters and how to speak like the upper class.

These last two points gave rise to the 18th-century grammarians that descriptivists and enlightened editors like to dump on. But we are not their target audience: most of us have an education that far surpasses what many of the merchant class had, and what’s considered “a good education” has changed (and no, not for the worse, geez). For those nouveaux riches who were suffering from serious Impostor Syndrome, and for their children who were getting educational opportunities far beyond what their parents or grandparents had, those grammars were a lifesaver. But they were a product of a particular moment in time, and need to be read within that moment.

Within that moment, then, good breeding and education were marked by elegance of expression, and elegance of expression was a moving target. Lindley Murray, an 18th-century grammarian whose work was so popular that it inspired a board game, champions “a plain, native style” in writing. Here is Lindley’s plain, native style:

PRECISION is the third requisite of perspicuity with respect to words and phrases. It signifies retrenching superfluities, and pruning the expression, so as to exhibit neither more nor less than an exact copy of the person’s idea who uses it.

A modern editor would read this extract and fall out of their chair in laughter. Third requisite! Retrenching superfluities! This is not the plain, native style you’re looking for; move along.

It should be noted that, by this point, few grammarians felt that a lack of education was the culprit: the most popular ones thought that it was the language itself that was the problem. Robert Lowth, another 18th-century grammarian and the Bishop of London, gives us the first hint of aggression. After explaining that English “offended against every part of Grammar,” he notes:

A Grammatical Study of our own Language makes no part of the ordinary method of instruction, which we pass through in our childhood, and it is very seldom that we apply ourselves to it afterward. … Much practice in the polite world, and a general acquaintance with the best authors, are good helps; but alone will hardly be sufficient: we have writers, who have enjoyed these advantages in their full extent, and yet cannot be recommended as models of an accurate style.

Ooh, Milton, ya burnt!

What Lowth and Murray did was to champion a form of language that wasn’t actually in common use: in fact, it often went against common use in favor of a synthetic, Platonic ideal. They were not interested in preserving the language, but in breaking it down and reforming it.

And that’s where this “good fight” metaphor falls to hell. The first soldiers in the fight to preserve English radically changed English, not according to the best practices of the great writers of the language, but according to their own views of elegance and correctness. What they wanted to preserve and promote didn’t, for the most part, actually exist: it was a convenient fiction that was painted in moral terms, thereby insuring its own propagation. For every prescriptivist that gives on a minor point, like the use of “above” as a noun, there is an entire peanut gallery of hyperprescriptivists who cast them from the fold and lump them in with those who would see English dissolve entirely. Under this mentality, the idea that the best practices of English change with time is anathema, the hogwash of modern linguistic relativism.1 It doesn’t preserve English so much as pickle it.

You can certainly champion “good grammar” in all its broad meanings, but casting it as a war is stubbornly unhelpful. There are no sides; there is no infantry; there is no territory to be gained; there are no medals of valor. The descriptivists are not your enemy, but are nothing more than heralds that announce when English marches forward. (You might as well declare war on trumpets). There is no enemy; there is just an open meadow of language to study, collect, and sort. Books, speech, whispered private jokes that slowly bleed into the world around them, ridiculous new portmanteaus that drive you batshit and yet set seed and bloom, dialect words that hang around the periphery of language for ages and ages–all of these deserve careful contemplation, not out-of-hand dismissal in the name of “preservation.” You are free to choose (or not!) anything in that meadow as your favorite, as the most lovely, as the fittest and least fit for a tasteful flower arrangement, and so on. You are free to remark on how much you hate burrs, or roses, or meadows in general. But do not make it a battleground.

[1]. By the way, modern linguistic relativism goes back to Horace, Ars Poetica, 18AD:

Multa renascentur quae iam cercidere, cadentque
quae nunc sunt in honore vocabula, si volet usus,
quem penes arbitrium est et ius et norma loquendi.

[Many words shall revive, which now have fallen off;
and many which are now in esteem shall fall off, if it be the will of usage,
in whose power is the decision and right and standard of language.]

What a commie hippie liberal.

 

 

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A Special Announcement

O dear and long-suffering readers, I am happy to announce that I finally have an editor.

Sadly, he will not be editing the drivel that appears here; he will only be editing my book.

Merriam-Webster lexicographer & blogger Kory Stamper’s HARMLESS DRUDGERY: How We Define The Words That Define Us, a look inside a lexicographer’s world as we follow the journey words take on their way both in and out of the dictionary, to Andrew Miller at Pantheon….

Yes: I’m writing a book! It’ll be written in the style of harm•less drudg•ery, and it will definitely contain fewer typos. This book has been in the works for a long while now, but the fact that it has left the realm of possibility and moved into, if not immediate reality, then a few blocks down from immediate reality, is pretty damned exciting and surreal. Forgive me if I am gobsmacked. The smack will eventually wear off my gob, I promise.

Don’t fret: I will do my best to keep up the rigorous (<snort>) publishing schedule here at harm•less drudg•ery. After all, those delightful pieces of correspondence are not going to post themselves to this blog. You can also occasionally catch me at Strong Language, a blog that sings my heart’s filthy, degenerate song.

Wish me luck, and send your condolences directly to my editor.

 

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Answers I Wish I Could Send: Etymology Edition

[Ed. note: one in a series.  Emails are only lightly edited for–if you can believe it–clarity.]

Your online dictionary defines “peak” as “a pointed or projecting part of a garment; especially :  the visor of a cap or hat”; and tentatively derives the word from “pike”. This is false. “Peak” derives from “beak” (which is why “bill” is a synonym). If I am correct, your definition should be modified.

Your logic is unassailable: “peak” looks like the word “beak,” and both hats and birds have a bill. Or rather, only the hats that truly matter–good American hats–have a bill. I don’t know why we didn’t see this before.

Oh, wait–we didn’t see it before because that’s not how etymology works. Imagine being tasked with creating ancestral photo albums for everyone in your family. You start with your second-cousin; you have, as your guide and starting point, a photo of that cousin that was taken yesterday. You are led to a large, dusty room that is overflowing, Hoarders-style, with pictures. The pictures go back hundreds of years, and several are stained or torn so badly that you can only guess at who the person in frame is. Some of those pictures will be of this cousin; many of these pictures will be of people who look vaguely like your cousin; many will be of other people you don’t know; there are several of Stinky, the neighbor’s dog. The door behind you creaks shut and locks. There are closed doors to your EAST and SOUTH; to your NORTH is a dimly lit brass lantern.

This is etymology. You are likely to be eaten by a grue. Continue reading

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Repossession: Reclaimed Slurs and Lexicography

[Ed. note: this post contains language that is considered extremely inflammatory. Caveat lector.]

People forward language articles to me all the time–usually the same article multiple times, until my inbox is nothing but language links and plaintive requests from Wine.com to buy more booze, please. But no one forwarded me Talib Kweli’s recent Medium post on language, probably because it was about the history and uses of the word “nigger.” I asked one of my frequent-forwarders if he had seen the post. “I had,” he wrote, “but I figured you’d have already seen it. I was not going to be the one to forward you a post on the n-word.”

The n-word. I think about slurs on a regular basis, in part because I have to explain to people why they’re entered in some of their dictionaries. It’s not unusual for me to open my email in the morning and see a message with the subject “NIGGER”; after a decade of answering these emails, I still wince when I see the subject line, stark in black and white. Continue reading

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Stigmatized and Still Alive: English in the Time of “Ain’t”

School has started up back in the U.S., which means that my Facebook feed is full of quizzes like “do you have better grammar than this fruit bat?”, and not-terribly-funny e-cards about the Oxford comma. These are the bane of September, and I’ve come to treat them like I treat the swelter of July: if I lay down on the living room floor and whimper quietly to myself for long enough, it’ll eventually be winter and I can be a human being again.

This September, however, yielded up a special treat: my FuhBook timeline was full of links to an article titled “A Step-By-Step Proof That Happiness Depends Partly On Grammar.” So many BookFaced people were sharing this article, complete with comments like “YES, THIS!”, that I peeled myself off the rug to see what all the fuss was about.

The article is an intro and apology (in the Greek sense) for a book written by N.M. Gwynne, M.A. (Oxon). The initial-loving Gwynne is a retired British businessman-cum-schoolmarm, so I think I’m safe in calling him a priggish eccentric. His article begins with a proof[1]–“yes, a proof that really is valid!” he trumpets, likely while waving his arms about, wearings his trousers as a jacket, and frightening pigeons and children–that good grammar leads to a good life. Students of Logic, start your engines: Continue reading

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Sharing The Wealth: A Contest For You

I have just finished one of Those Proverbial Days, due in large part to some particularly nasty editorial correspondence. One of those retreat-into-the-bunker-tell-my-kids-I-love-them-avenge-my-nerdy-death sorts of days.

Usually my pressure valve is Twitter, where I vent about the inanity of this vale of tears we call “Letters to the Dictionary” in 140 characters or less. But that is frankly a selfish release: I whine and moan about how crazy our correspondents are, and you must endure said whining regardless of whether you want to endure it or not.

This is the part where I should repent of my selfishness and tell you that I’m going to stop burdening/bothering you while you are getting vitally important updates from KimKierkegaardashian, but let’s be honest: we all totes know I’m not going to do that. I will, however, sweeten the deal by introducing:

“BAD DICTIONARY” BINGO. Continue reading

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Editorial Correspondence: Introductory Paragraphs I Cannot Send

[For more on editorial correspondence, go here or here or most definitely here.]

Dear Sir:

Thanks for your email, in which you claim a “smirky blogger” has ruined English by telling you that the rule regarding the use of “that” and “which” is not based on actual usage. I’m the smirky blogger in question (though technically I’m a vlogger) and that’s not a smirk, but a medical condition. Thank you for bringing up such a painful subject; I hope I can be helpful.

—————

Dear Sir:

Thanks for your all-caps email. I must confess I had a hard time following your complaint about the existence of the world “self-abuse” due to the tremendous pile-up of gerunds in your primary paragraph. “Immediately stressing and so much annoying damaging” indeed. This paragraph on masturbation is a form of masturbation in and of itself, and I congratulate you on this subtlety.

—————

Dear Ma’am:

Thanks for your complaint about our app and your request for a free app upgrade as a consolation prize for hating our app so much. Your email was forwarded to me for response, which is a pity, because someone else would have deffers been nicer to you than I am about to be.

————— Continue reading

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In Defense of Talking Funny

[Ed. note: Five months! I know. My (very poor) excuse is that I was working on another big project that I can’t tell you about yet. In the meantime, here’s an extra-long post to pay you back for the extra-long wait.]

I was talking with a friend–well, a “friend”–about some of the videos we were about to shoot for M-W. We were at a crowded, chichi restaurant, the type of place where the waiters pull your chair out for you and ask if you want sparkling, still, or mineral water. In short, a place far above my usual grab-and-go, paper-napkins milieu. A place where it behooves you to not only look smart, but sound smart. A place where you’d use the word “behoove.”

So I was behooving, using some expansive vocabulary and trying not to think about how I was paying $12 for a glass of wine when I can buy a whole bottle of it for $12 at my local discount booze shack, when my friend interrupted me. “You’re saying that wrong.”

It was the cliché record scratch, a loud fart in church. “What?”

“‘Towards’. You’re saying it oddly– ‘TOE-wards’. It’s ‘TWARDS’.”

I blinked and dropped a forkful of frisée-glacé-reduction-foofaraw down my shirt. “It is?”

He looked unnerved: the English language is supposed to be my area of expertise. “It’s pronounced ‘TWARDS’. I mean, right? Here, we’ll ask the waiter.”

My stomach hit my shoes. “No, no, I’ll take your word for it.” And we attempted to go back to the conversation we had before I started talking about the videos. I say “attempted”: we did, in fact, have more conversation, though I don’t recall much of what was said. I was just trying to avoid saying the word “towards.” Continue reading

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Book Review: Shady Characters*

If you are anything like me, then you are the worst sort of etymologist: the sort who will trace a word back as far as the record will allow then sit back and say, “Good. But why?” “Zinc” comes from the German Zink; “pepper” from the Greek peperi; the sports “jersey” comes from the name of one of the Channel Islands. This is all well and good, but why? I will finish the job before me and then have to fight the temptation to spend hours wending my way through lexical and narrative garden paths, reading ancillary information about the culture and historical moment in which a word is born.

In this respect, Keith Houston’s book Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks [W.W. Norton & Co.] satisfies deeply. The book ostensibly covers the history and use of roughly 11 punctuation marks–one per chapter, with a few irony and sarcasm marks taken as a whole in the final chapter–though in the narrative of each mark’s birth and rise, we meet and hear about other marks. The chapter on the dash introduces us to the en dash, the em dash, the hyphen-minus, the em quad, the virgule, the commash, the colash, the semi-colash, the stop-dash, and a host of famous 18th century literary fornicators (Moll Flanders figures in prominently) and almost-fictional bumbling politicians (courtesy of Samuel Johnson’s political satires). The whole book reads this way: the first chapter on the pilcrow (¶) finishes up with a short note that Eric Gill, one of the preeminent typographers of the 20th century, was not just the creator of the Gill Sans and Perpetua typefaces, but also the sculptor of some racy life-sized statuary and accused posthumously of adultery, incest, child abuse, and bestiality. Try using Perpetua ever again without thinking of that. Continue reading

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A Compromise: How To Be A Reasonable Prescriptivist

Dear Language Peever:

Welcome to harm•less drudg•ery! You are here because you googled something like “literally killed English” or “different than is wrong” or “irregardless not a word.” Allow me to introduce myself: I’m that lady from the dictionary that made that stupid video about “irregardless.” Behold: I am a dread descriptivist.

Before you stomp off in a fit of pique, hear me out (if only because I used the right “pique”). Many people assume you and I are on different sides of the Great Grammar Debate–in fact, you probably assume this–but we have much in common. We are both carbon-based life forms with an Internet connection, and we both care deeply about language. And I know that you, a would-be prescriptivist, are sick of defending proper English to the hoi polloi and us hippie-dippy no-rulez descriptivists. I know this because this hippie-dippy descriptivist is pretty damn tired of having this conversation with you, too.

So in a spirit of bonhomie, I’m reaching across the aisle: I’m going to give you tools to be an informed prescriptivist and then let you go on your merry, doomsaying way, never to tell you to lighten the hell up again. Here, for your erudition, are the Six Steps to Becoming a Reasonable Prescriptivist. Continue reading

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