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.

44 Comments

Filed under grammar, peeving and usage, the decline of English

44 responses to “Stop Fighting the “Good” Fight

  1. Beautifully put as always. Great post, Kory.

  2. Shmuel

    I wonder what he meant by “pruning the express.” Maybe we’ll find out on National Proofreading Day.

    • Kory Stamper

      We don’t observe National Proofreading Day in this country, so his meaning will be opaque forever. (Fixed now!)

  3. Reblogged this on The Friendly Stickler and commented:
    March 4 is National Grammar Day. I can observe the occasion in no better way than with a reblog of this post by Kory Stamper of Merriam-Webster.

  4. This feels like a nice clean shower after administering the ACT on Tuesday and reminding students that ACT style demands “the simplest right answer.” (I mainly hate that test because readers are not allowed to engage with the texts presented. Thinking slows you down.) Extra credit for “the whole megillah” on Purim. Fragments. I love ’em.

  5. David Martin

    As a recent enlister in your obviously sizeable fan club, I have become an almost worshipful admirer of both your knowledge and your wit, Today I take perhaps unpardonable glee at catching you in what is clearly an inconsistency or oversight, if not an error. Consider the following two (consecutive) sentences from your latest blog, about fighting the good fight:

    As a recent enlister in your obviously sizeable fan club, I have become an almost worshipful admirer of both your knowledge and your wit, Today I take perhaps unpardonable glee at catching you in what is clearly an inconsistency or oversight, if not an error. Consider the following two sentences from your latest blog, about fighting the good fight:

    “That will be the article WHICH will cause me to roll my eyes and close the laptop.”

    “That will be the article THAT sets me sputtering and hissing like a teakettle boiling over.”

    It seems to me in each sentence we have a restrictive relative clause, one that provides essential information about the noun to which it refers, and cannot be left out of the sentence without affecting the meaning.

    On the other hand, a non-restrictive relative clause provides information that can be left out without affecting the meaning or structure of the sentence.

    So the “which” in the first sentence would seem to be inappropriate.

    A comma is not needed before a restrictive relative clause. On the other hand, a non-restrictive relative clause benefits from being separated from the rest of the sentence by a comma, or commas before and after.

    If you have an explanation for the non-parallel structure, please elucidate.

    And please carry on your excellent and entertaining work.

    Best regards,

    David Martin
    Best regards,
    David Martin

    • Kory Stamper

      This is probably the most succinct explanation of the “that”/”which” rule. As for the non-parallel structure, well, I clearly need to stop writing these posts after midnight.

    • The that/which rule is an invention that has no basis in grammatical fact. English has long allowed the use of either one to introduce a restrictive relative clause. I’ve written several posts on the subject.

  6. Great quotation from Horace. Those “Ancients, at least the elite, ” had clearer thinking than many moderns.

  7. This is really a nice piece of writing, Kory Stamper!

  8. Great text! Perhaps your best post so far. I especially liked the way you framed things historically. And Horace’s quote.

  9. Sharon

    Sometimes, there is such a flawed formation that a reasonable person just can’t accept it and must despise it. The sad loss of “me” as the object of a sentence is just plain awful. “He gave it to Robin and I” — ugh! It makes no sense.

  10. It’s fun to think that someday people will read your most humorous article and – just perhaps – have to look up “commie” and “hippie.” I think “liberal” will transcend the ages, but in a merry-g0-r0und of shades.

    • Synfandel

      “Liberal” might transcend the ages, but it will likely still mean something different in the USA than in most of the rest of the western world where it means favouring maximum individual liberty rather than favouring an active role for government in shaping society and the economy.

  11. This is great! I found it while working on my own post yesterday. If you’ve got a minute, come on by: lorinotes.wordpress.com

  12. Thanks for this enlightening article. I now know that I have subscribed to school of modern linguistic relativism for all of my career. When I work with teachers, as soon as we begin to talk about writing, the first thing they do is decry the awful grammar of their students. I’ve stopped trying to tell them that language evolves, because they just don’t hear it. I wish they would listen when I ask them to get their students thinking about what they have to say instead of spending precious time making sure their students are beaten over the head with “how to say it.” If you have something to say, then the impetus to say it in a way that an audience will understand is there.

    • Karen

      I could not agree more. I homeschooled my five children, the last two of whom are dyslexic. My daughter, now 25, is an artist and photographer who blogs almost every day. She capitalizes nothing, spells a lot wrong, and her writing is full of fragments, comma splices, and run-on sentences. But I absolutely love her stories and her heart and I can’t wait to read the next day’s post. For so many years she struggled mightily to write even the most basic 2-page paper—it’s a wonder she graduated from college. Yet now she has discovered the joy in being creative in writing, and for her that was the key: that writing is creative. So often we teach the creativity right out of it.

  13. Judith Barnard

    What a shock to find this in an essay on all aspects of grammar (granted it is ubiquitous and I’m fighting a losing battle, but still…)

    A modern editor would read this extract and fall out of their chair in laughter.

    THEIR CHAIR??? How many editors are referenced in this sentence?

    As I said, a shock (and major disappointment),

    Judith Barnard

    • Kory Stamper

      Editors contain multitudes.

      • Shmuel

        OK, but I say only one multitude per editor, so they shouldn’t contradict theirself.

      • Tim K.

        I don’t think Judith actually understood the point of your post, as she is still “fighting a battle” (albeit a losing one).
        p.s. I’ve been looking for an action figure of you. Why haven’t they made one yet? You totally deserve an action figure.

        • Kory Stamper

          An action figure of me would just look like a very dour Lego minifigure with snap-on blue hair. Very realistic rendering.

    • Pat Street

      I think “their” is the coming thing; “his or her” (or “her or his”) is just awkward. Nobody talks that way, and soon nobody will write that way. Kory is just at the cutting edge. Love this post!!

    • Janet Rizvi

      Don’t the feminists make a case, when generalizing, for using ‘they/them/their’ as a substitute for the anti-feminist ‘he/him/his’, or the clunky ‘he or she/him or her/his or her’?

  14. afrenning

    Hey Kory, we had a great time reading this one, thank you. Keep on rocking for righteousness! — Ann, James & Lucy

  15. coco

    If I can’t judge people for their grammar, how can I continue to feel superior to them? Now I’ll have to make up some other criterion.

  16. Rhombus Obstacle

    It amuses and disturbs me that people (David Martin & Judith Barnard in particular) are quibbling over minor mistakes/style matters in this of all posts. Singular their is both well-attested and useful! That/which are both fine! With respect to the post’s title, y’all had one job.

  17. Casey Ferguson

    Reblogged this on Secondhand Leader and commented:
    Great read. The standard version of English we teach and expect in schools was, at its creation moment, an artificial construct that different groups of English speakers had to train themselves in (it was not the natural way of speaking for anyone). And while I believe clear communication is most easily achieved through Standard Written English, every time we make a new word, phrase, idiom, or connotation a battleground, we lose sight of the fact that English is an ever changing language, subject first to the usage of the people.

  18. So many of my thoughts were so well articulated here by you! I don’t know if you’ve heard of the book “Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue” but I thought of it while reading your post and it’s a great guide to the many meandering paths of English throughout the years.

    • ian darling

      I don’t think that prescriptivism is ever going to fade away because it seems to meet quite a lot of psychological needs. As Niles Crane Syndrome this is fairly harmless but, as you say, it all gets ridiculous when seen as a war/crusade.

  19. G. W. Scott

    Prescriptivism works because people need rules. There is such a thing as “good usage,” some of it perhaps illogical, much of it quasi-historical but people at a certain level of social and educational elevation are expected to have mastered it. Yes, there are a lot of exceptions, but they are exceptions. Really, folks, it isn’t hard — and the much-belabored high school English teacher is the traditional guide to the mystery.

    One good practice is to translate a sentence into Latin. If it doesn’t work, then that is a clue to possible need for revision. And, as the saying goes, it isn’t necessary that a well-educated gentleman know Latin, but he needs at least to have forgotten it.

    • Janet Rizvi

      Yes, I had good English teachers, that’s why I can do sentence analysis & understand why a sentence is or isn’t OK, & can understand relative pronouns, & all that. It all made quite a lot of sense to me—& why? Because I was a voracious reader. Any child who reads enough well-written children’s books will find little difficulty in absorbing the canons of ‘correct’, or should I say ‘accepted’. usage.
      OK, some of us are privileged to belong to literate families where the availability of good literature, for children & adults, is one of life’s givens. Primary schools could do more for the less privileged, by the simple means of having a good & varied library, & allotting one period a day to unstructured reading,

    • Kory Stamper

      If you’re going to translate your sentences into a foreign language to improve their grammar, why not choose a language that’s more regular and systematic than Latin? Latin got pretty sloppy there at the end of the Empire. Esperanto’s a better choice.

      Or maybe consider translating English into another Germanic language, since translating a Germanic language into an Italic one for grammatical concerns is like rebuilding your car engine with bicycle parts. German’s good. If you must translate it into a dead language, West Germanic is the way to go.

      Translating English into Finnish is a delightful experience, if only because it loses its awkward, harsh consonants and becomes elegant and lilting as a minuet. Consider:

      Shut up! = Hiljaa!
      Look out! = Varo!
      Oh, shit. = Paskan marjat.
      Who has time for all this nonsense? = Kenellä on aikaa kaikille tätä hölynpölyä?

      It isn’t necessary that a well-educated gentleman know Finnish, West Germanic, and Esperanto, but he need at least to have forgotten them.

    • KBTibbs

      Translating English to Latin.

      Ho boy. People like you are the reason we have “octopi”.

  20. The Great Urn

    I’d be remiss not to mention the loveliest Finnish word of all: pilkunnussija (“comma fucker”).

  21. Jack

    Reblogged this on Wyrdwend and commented:
    Indeed. I’ve said this a million times myself.

    “It’s the makers of manners, not the masters of manners, who make the language…”

  22. Pingback: Link love: language (62) | Sentence first

  23. I really enjoyed this post on grammar. Grammar is essential. I see it as a result of perception following a sequence, and charting the nuances of its pivots through the conventions of symbols, as precisely as possible in relation to the mimetic connection between the actual sequence perceived and the hand that crafts to tell it in language. When language becomes the sequence perceived, the grammar used to chart the seeing of language’s movements can become symbols as synchronic moments on where a sequence shifted away from conventional uses for depicting an idea. At these moments of charting heightened-grammar, the writer or the reader may develop a perception for phenomenal space, which a moment prior was not in the realm of comprehension because the ability to identify a reality for reading from phenomenal space, as presented by heightened-grammar, was simply not within perceptual sequencing until it was. Heightened-grammar provides a reader a new experience of reading.

  24. Gene Venable

    I just watched your that-vs-which video, and was happy to see that your opinion matches mine exactly, down to the appeal to historical usage. When I argued with my colleagues at Sage Publications about this years ago, I would go home and search through Henry James for instances in which he would use “which” when they would prescribe “that.” But to them, the distinction was a crusade for consistency which overruled historical usage. I always felt that I detected a secret logic in my wishing to vary from their mechanical rule, and I wasn’t willing to give up my flexibility in word choice in favor of their rigid principle. But, of course, their rules ruled while I worked there.

  25. Language is an ongoing project that is never complete but only a fool would deny that a ridged stance in defense of what is formally accepted as correct is needed to keep the whole project from chaos. An airplanes and kites need tails to stabilize their flight.

  26. There are no sides; there is no infantry; there is no territory to be gained; there are no medals of valor. – loved this part. Correct each other or read more. I agree with the above comment about language being an ongoing project. If tracing back to what it was and what it is now, language is being simplified and continues to do so with lols, brbs, and emojis. When will we get to communicating in single letters that will stand for words and sentences? I hope that never. Great post!

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