Cheap shot

May 08, 2012|By John E. McIntyre | The Baltimore Sun

At Throw Grammar From the Train, Jan Freeman alerts us to an article by Joan Acocella in The New Yorker on descriptivism vs. prescriptivism that will not enlighten you.

Ms. Acocella rather tiresomely trots out George Orwell and Webster's Third and Dwight Macdonald and Strunk and White (Even conceding that The Elements of Style has become "a cult object," anyone writing for The New Yorker must apparently make obeisance to E.B. White lest she commit lese majesty).*

But the gotcha! touch, as Ms. Freeman notes, comes at the end of this review of Henry Hitchings's The Language Wars,** when she pounces on Mr. Hitchings:

"He thinks that the “who”/“whom” distinction may be on its way out. Funny, how we never see any confusion over these pronouns in his book, which is written in largely impeccable English.

"No surprise here. Hitchings went to Oxford and wrote a doctoral dissertation on Samuel Johnson. He has completed three books on language. He knows how to talk the talk, but, as for walking the walk, he’d rather take the Rolls. You can walk, though."

The same sort of ignorant comment surfaces occasionally at Language Log, where someone marvels that professional linguists produce the same sort of standard written English as other academics (though somewhat clearer). It is a naive failure to recognize that accomplished writers understand registers of English and choose the one appropriate for their purposes.

Identifying a usage does not equate to endorsing it; and even if a usage is endorsed, that does not make in compulsory.

If Ms. Acocella were to write under the assumption that anthropologists must necessarily adopt the practices they describe, she would be laughed at. But since she is writing about language and usage, any ignorant expression goes straight to print.

*Class may be excused from reading the text of the article, having heard so much of it before. Mr. Hitchings's book, however, is recommended for supplemental reading.

**Favorably noticed here.

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