Let's be serious about language

July 03, 2014|By John E. McIntyre | The Baltimore Sun

The class of language commentators I have labeled the peeververein, the complainers about the supposed degredation of English, upholders of bogus schoolroom grammar, and defenders of embattled cultural standards, preen themselves as serious people. 

They are not. They are poseurs whose snobbery and shallow understanding of the language are readily exposed. 

At Caxton, Barrie England has graciously offered his platform to Bessel Dekker, a retired lecturer in linguistics at the Hogeschool van Amsterdam, for a post, "What's Wrong With Peeving?" 

It is a short, compelling article well worth your attention. I offer you the peroration: 

"As long as we are more interested in being right, in feeling correct, superior and indeed safe than in studying the language as it is, as it shapes itself before our eyes (should we be willing to open those eyes), we are not interested in language but in ourselves. Language is not a personal game of one-upmanship: it is a social institution of astonishing complexity, and any effort to really understand it a little is much more rewarding than the judgementality which ignores other speakers’ motives, reasons and indeed their rights as participants in the social venture."

In a previous Caxton post, "Four Basic Points," Mr. England concisely summed up the viewpoint of linguists and lexicographers, the genuine experts studying the language. This post, too, I commend to your attention, and I'll quote the fourth point:

"The terms ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ are unhelpful in discussing language, except in speaking of infants and foreign learners. Language is best judged on its effectiveness. To say that a particular usage is incorrect is inadequately descriptive and insufficiently damning."

For readers of this blog who have felt that I am continually attacking points of style or usage they hold dear and dismissing them as stuffy and hidebound, let me be clear. 

Mastery of standard written English is today what classical quotation was for Dr. Johnson, "the parole of literary men."* It is not the only English, but it is the English that one must master, in one or more of its many variations and registers, to write effectively for publication.

When I sit in the editor's chair, I see errors of grammar and usage, which I correct; but I much more frequently see marks of ineffective writing, which I also labor to mend. In that enterprise, I have discovered, enforcing "rules" that have no foundation and dog-whistle distinctions is not the most profitable use of my time. 

*Please let's not get distracted by the eighteenth century's lamentable failure to embrace feminism. 

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