I was attacking DFW’s long Harper’s essay on usage in a comment on MeFi today, and the more I thought about it, the madder I got, and I finally couldn’t resist letting him have it at length. Wallace’s long, long article pretends to be a review of Bryan Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, but that’s just the pretext for yet another in the endless series of rants about how proper usage is being forgotten and language is going to hell in a handbasket that probably started in ancient Sumer and will continue until the sun goes supernova. Wallace uses cleverer rhetoric than most (establishing a folksy/learned persona that is intended to convince you of both his bona fides and his credentials, and conceding enough of his opponents’ arguments that he hopes to disarm the less truculent of them), but what he’s selling is the same old snake oil: “You’ve got to learn and use all those fourth-grade grammar rules—it’s really important!” He proudly admits to being what in his family is called a SNOOT (his caps), and when he admits that some of those rules are actually silly he says (on p. 51 of the original article) “…people who insist on them… are that very most pathetic and dangerous sort of SNOOT, the SNOOT Who Is Wrong” (again, his caps). Truer words were never spoke. Let’s take it from the top.
p. 41, fn. 3: “SNOOT (n) (highly colloq) is this reviewer’s nuclear family’s nickname à clef for a really extreme usage fanatic…” What does he mean here by “à clef“? A roman à clef is a novel with a key, a key which if you possess it (by being in the know) allows you to decipher which characters represent which real people. This is not how he uses “SNOOT” (if it were, it would be a coded designation for a single person, his mother perhaps); the word is simply family jargon. We are forced to conclude he does not know how to use the French phrase he deploys so snappily.
p. 42, fn. 8: “From personal experience, I can assure you that any kid like this is going to be at best marginalized and at worst savagely and repeatedly Wedgied.” Why the capital W? We go to Webster’s Third and find the answer: Wedgies is thus written. But wait! The definition is “trademark—used for shoes having a wedge heel.” In other words, it has nothing whatever to do with the colloquial usage he is trying to write down (having to do with the malicious pulling up of underwear). He is more intent on proving that he knows how to use a big dictionary than in reading what it says there.
p. 43: “…the notoriously liberal Webster’s Third New International Dictionary came out in 1961 and included such terms as heighth and irregardless without any monitory labels on them.” The lie direct: “heighth” is labeled “chiefly dial[ect]” and “irregardless” “nonstand[ard].” Does he think nobody’s going to check up on him?
Same page, next paragraph: “We regular citizens…” This sort of smarmy regular-guy rhetoric from someone who knows you know he’s a famous author and who is setting himself up as an all-knowing authority makes me sick.
p. 44, fn. 14: “q.v. this from the January ’62 Atlantic“: This is the first of at least three occasions on which he misuses “q.v.” as if it were “v.” (vide, Latin for ‘see’). Q.v. stands for quod vide ‘which see’ and is used after a reference to the thing seen.
p. 45: “These guys tend to be hard-core academics, mostly linguists or Comp theorists.” Comp theorists? I Googled “comp theorist” and got three (count ‘em) hits, all lower-case and all apparently using “comp” for “composition.” So there are two issues here: why is he using such an obscure phrase (I’m still not clear on what “comp theorists” are or why they are “hard-core academics”), and why does he upper-case the C? [For "comp theorists," see second Addendum below.]
Next paragraph: “…Descriptivism so quickly and thoroughly took over English education in this country that just about everybody who started junior high after c. 1970 has been taught to write Descriptively—via ‘freewriting,’ ‘brainstorming,’ ‘journaling,’ a view of writing as self-exploratory and -expressive rather than as communicative, an abandonment of systematic grammar, usage, semantics, rhetoric, etymology.” But descriptivism in the relevant sense (describing the observed usage of language rather than prescribing how it should be used) has nothing to do with “freewriting” and the like; you can be “self-exploratory and -expressive” using the most traditional Oxbridge prose style (and indeed many have). He’s trying to tar scientific linguists with any brush that comes to hand.
p. 46, fn. 19: “Standard Written English (SWE) is also sometimes called Standard English (SE) or Educated English, but the inditement-emphasis is the same.” “Inditement” means ‘act of composing, giving literary or formal expression to’; I have no idea how he’s using it here and I don’t think he does either.
At the end of the same footnote: “(Yr. SNOOT rev. cannot help observing, w/r/t these ads, that the opening r in Refer here should not be capitalized after a dependent clause + ellipses—Quandoque bonus dormitat Homerus.)” Ironically, the Latin words he is here using as an independent sentence are themselves a dependent clause: Horace says “Indignor quandoque bonus dormitat Homerus,” I am indignant whenever worthy Homer drowses (i.e., allows his attention to flag). All that quotation-grubbing only to show how poor his Latin is!
p. 47: “…Methodological Descriptivists seem either ignorant of this fact or oblivious to its consequences, as in for example one Charles Fries’s introduction to an epigone of Webster’s Third called The American College Dictionary.” This is the lowest kind of ad hominem, this condescending “one”—”some guy called Fries whose opinion we needn’t take seriously.” Charles Fries was a distinguished linguist and a president of the Linguistic Society of America, and he knew more about language than David Foster Wallace is ever likely to; the fact that Wallace is ignorant of him is a reflection on Wallace, not Fries. And matters degenerate from there; Wallace quotes Fries (comparing a dictionary to a book of chemistry or physics recording observed facts) and then says “This is so stupid it practically drools.” I will try to restrain myself and simply point out that that aspersion would be better cast on what Wallace says next:

An “authoritative” physics text presents the results of physicists’ observations and physicists’ theories about those observations. If a physics textbook operated on Descriptivist principles, the fact that some Americans believe that electricity flows better downhill (based on the observed fact that power lines tend to run high above the homes they serve) would require the Electricity Flows Better Downhill Theory to be included as a “valid” theory in the textbook—just as, for Dr. Fries, if some Americans use infer for imply, the use becomes an ipso facto “valid” part of the language. Structural linguists like Gove and Fries are not, finally, scientists but census-takers who happen to misconstrue the importance of “observed facts.” It isn’t scientific phenomena they’re tabulating but rather a set of human behaviors, and a lot of human behaviors are—to be blunt—moronic. Try, for instance, to imagine an “authoritative” ethics textbook whose principles were based on what most people actually do.

The confusion (or drooling stupidity, if you prefer) is evident: linguists describe the observed facts of linguistic usage, not people’s beliefs about it; the comparison would be not to an ethics textbook but to a textbook of human behavior, and what would such a catalog of behavior be worth if it included only behavior the author approved of?
Now, still on p. 47, we come to two of the most glaring patches of nonsense in the whole essay. The paragraph immediately following the quote above begins:

Norm-wise, let’s keep in mind that language didn’t come into being because our hairy ancestors were sitting around the veldt with nothing better to do. Language was invented to serve certain specific purposes: “That mushroom is poisonous”; “Knock these two rocks together and you can start a fire”; “This shelter is mine!”

Need I point out that David Foster Wallace has not the faintest idea how language came into being (nor does anybody else)? And the suggestion that it was “invented” to serve “certain specific purposes”… well, Wallace tries to justify this with the second nonsense patch, footnote 23, which takes up half the page. It begins:

This proposition is in fact true, as is interpolatively demonstrated below, and although the demonstration is extremely persuasive it is also, as you can see from the size of this FN, lengthy and involved and rather, umm, dense, so that again you’d probably be better off simply granting the truth of the proposition and forging on with the main text.

The haughty tone is bad enough, but in fact nothing is “demonstrated” in the footnote. The first part is irrelevant maundering about an adolescent pot-smoker; he continues with a deep bow in the direction of Wittgenstein, whose “very complex and opaque and gnomic” argument is summarized to the point of absurdity, and concludes with a grandiose bit of hand-waving about “class, race, gender, morality, pluralism… You name it.” Nothing was delivered.
p. 48: He provides examples contrived to show how important it is to follow the rules:

Some of these rules really do seem to serve clarity, and precision. The injunction against two-way adverbs (“People who eat this often get sick”) is an obvious example, as are rules about other kinds of misplaced modifiers (“There are many reasons why lawyers lie, some better than others”) and about relative pronouns’ proximity to the nouns they modify (“She’s the mother of an infant daughter who works twelve hours a day”).

Note that even these made-up examples are not actually ambiguous; say them aloud (or imagine them said aloud) and the meaning is clear.
p. 49: “I am 100-percent confident…” Hyphens are not used in this construction.
p. 50: “That ursine juggernaut bethought to sup upon my person!” This is not a correct use of “bethought,” which occurs only with a following reflexive pronoun and means ‘called to mind, reminded oneself’ (Charlotte Bronte: “I bethought myself of an expedient”). The word Wallace wants is “thought.” (This error is first cousin to “begrudgingly” used for “grudgingly.”)
p. 51: “Part of this is a naked desire to fit in and not get rejected as an egghead or fag (see sub).” Sub is a preposition. The word Wallace is fumbling around for is infra ‘below.’

Same page: “Garner himself takes out after the s.i. rule in both SPLIT INFINITIVES and SUPERSTITIONS.” Doesn’t he mean “takes on” rather than “takes out after”?
p. 52: “…ask ‘s’up, s’goin on,’ pronouncing on with that NYCish oo-o diphthong that Young Urban Black English deploys for a standard o” (there is supposed to be a macron over “oo” and a breve over “o”). I have lived in NYC for decades and have never heard a Young Urban Black, or anyone else, pronounce “on” in such a way. (On the same page he talks about “quadruple Wedgies”; see my remarks on p. 42 above.)
OK, even I am getting tired of this. It should be clear by now that Wallace is punching above his weight. He has no right to parade erudition he has no claim to, still less to condescend to people who know far more than he. But I have saved my favorite bit for last. In a long (and irrelevant, but large chunks of the essay are irrelevant, it’s Wallace’s little mannerism, owing nothing, I am sure, to his being paid by the word) attack on Academic English on p. 56, he mentions “pretentious diction (whose function is to signal the writer’s erudition).” How did he manage not to blush?

Addendum. More on DFW (his attack on Philip Gove) here. I should add, for the benefit of those who consider the above points “nitpicking,” that they are no such thing. I can’t hope to teach a basic course in linguistics in the space of a blog entry; all I can do is point to enough errors that you should be thinking “If the guy makes that many mistakes, how can I trust that he knows what he’s talking about?” It would be one thing if DFW were writing about, say, plumbing and I were picking apart his Latin; that would be nitpicking. But he’s writing about language, and his only claim to your attention is the idea that he knows more about it than you do. The more picky points he brings up, the more important it is that he get them right. Sure, it’s a minor matter that he misuses a capital letter in “Wedgied”—except that the only point of his using it (since nobody else ever has or ever will, unless they foolishly copy it from him) is to make a point of his extreme accuracy in the tiniest of matters… and he gets it wrong. That should bother even the most devoted DFW fan. (Imagine him as a guy on a podium promoting his brand of heal-all nostrums, which I, a licensed physician, know to be useless and potentially harmful. I can’t give you my medical education, but if I keep pointing out that he refers to “tibia” when he means “fibula” or talks about nonexistent glands, you might begin to distrust him even though he’s a charming guy with a great line of patter.)

I should also add that I am not attacking DFW as a writer. I’m a big fan of footnotes and asides and parades of erudition, and I enjoy his deployment of the full arsenal of rhetoric American style—except here, where it’s put in the service of a wrong and harmful doctrine. “Prescriptivism” is nothing more than linguistic elitism, and like any elitism it’s used as a club to harm the people least able to fight back. I despise it, and that’s why I get testy with anyone who defends it and is used by others to defend it.
Addendum 2. June 2005: I have heard from an actual comp theorist, Jay Steichmann, who says:

By my definition, only a very few comp (small c, most definitely) theorists are “hard-core” academics. This is not to say that they are weak theorists, only that our discipline as such still struggles to define itself, research is primarily qualitative, and teaching writing/composition occupies as much time in our thought and actions as does purely theoretical work… Our big conference is the 4Cs (Conference on College Composition and Communication). None of the people that I have been reading in composition theory would, as far as I know, describe themselves purely as “composition theorists” without veering off into describing their complementary interests in rhetoric, philosophy, education and so on. However, when we look at the works that try to theorize composition studies, the names most often cited would probably be Louise Wetherbee Phelps, Stephen North, James Berlin, Mike Rose, Geoff Sirc, Victor Vitanza, Victor Villanueva, Cindy Johanek, Joseph Harris—and there are probably quite a few names I am leaving out. But this field struggles to define itself because it is by nature an interdisciplinary, humanistic study. Joseph Williams (whose rules on grammar are those I most often teach) may or may not consider himself a comp theorist and the same applies to Andrea Lunsford… Where comp/rhet theorists and practitioners struggle is that there is no empirical proof that doing “x” will produce good writers/good writing, which is what Wallace and others like him seem to expect. And when we reject teaching rules of grammar as the be-all and end-all foundation of teaching composition, we come under considerable attack from that segment of the public who cannot write two cogent sentences in a row, but whose memory of being taught grammar sticks with them and they think that their children should be made to suffer equally.

I am grateful for the crash course in a field I didn’t know existed.


  1. He doesn’t know anything about math either:

    ‘As you’ve probably begun to see,’ David Foster Wallace writes in Everything and More, ‘Aristotle manages to be sort of grandly and breathtakingly wrong, always and everywhere, when it comes to infinity…As for Wallace’s book, the less said, the better. It’s a sloppy production, including neither an index nor a table of contents, and after a while his breezy style grates. No one who is unfamiliar with the ideas behind his dense, user-unfriendly mathematical expositions could work their way through them to gain any insight into what he is talking about. Worse, anyone who is already familiar with these ideas will see that his expositions are often riddled with mistakes. The sections on set theory, in particular, are a disaster. When he lists the standard axioms of set theory from which mathematicians derive theorems about the iterative conception of a set, he gets the very first one wrong. (It is not, as Wallace says, that if two sets have the same members, then they are the same size. It is that two sets never do have the same members.) From there it is pretty much downhill. He goes on to discuss Cantor’s unsolved problem, which I mentioned at the end of the previous paragraph. There are many different, equivalent ways of formulating the problem; Wallace gives four. The first and fourth are fine. The second, about whether the real numbers ‘constitute’ the set of sets of rational numbers, does not, as it stands, make sense. And the third, about whether the cardinal that measures the size of the set of real numbers can be obtained by raising 2 to the power of the smallest infinite cardinal, is simply wrong: we know it can. Any reader keen to gain insights into the infinite would do better to go back to Aristotle.

    Here’s the article, but I’ve quoted everything having to do with him. I got it from Maud Newton.

  2. Oh dear. I’ve tried not to let my prejudices run away with me in the matter of DFW, but I’m beginning to wonder if there’s any point.

  3. I have been looking for your comments on the DFW Garner essay for over a year.
    I love DFW, but yours is a totally killer demolishing. Or small w “wedgie-ing,” if you prefer.

  4. Why, thank you. I’m particularly glad to have it appreciated by a DFW fan, since I’ve tried to make it clear that I think he’s a good writer, just out of his league on this subject (as is only to be expected).

  5. Rosemarie DiMatteo says:

    Poor David. How I love his writing. There was a time when I thought I could learn so much from him. I was team-teaching a grammar course with him one semester–that year an illness took me out of commission. Anyway, he works a class to the point of suicide. Reading your apt remark (DFW’s stance): “…nothing more than linguistic elitism, and like any elitism it’s used as a club to harm the people least able to fight back. I despise it, and that’s why I get testy with anyone who defends it and is used by others to defend it–” I believe–because I’ve seen him in action–that he’s been the victim of that same dehumanizing “club” in his early life. The damage is clearly evident in his all-too-autobiographical writing, by the way. No big revelation. The saddest thing about all this is that yes, he is one of the most “charming and chatty” guys I’ve ever met. However, DFW’s supreme erudition and mesmerizing charm won’t save him from being forever the loneliest man on the planet. He makes it so.

  6. Thanks for a most enlightening comment. This is why I hate closing comments on old entries. Spammers, spare this thread!

  7. Aren’t you caught in a double bind here? If you choose to attack DFW’s essay on the grounds that his spelling and grammar are poor, then you must surely help to prove his main contention: that correct spelling and grammar – as defined by experts such as yourself – are a major component in the creation of written authority. Had this essay been written by a student who had never been taught to use Standard English, and whose writing was therefore full of non-standard usages, ambiguous grammar and spelling, and the incorrect use of Latin tags, would you then approve of it as a representative work of those linguistically-disadvantaged people who are unable to fight back? Certainly it would be hypocritical of you then to criticise it on language grounds.
    (My worry, to reply briefly to Rosemarie DiMatteo, is that by not introducing our own standards of writing to people outside this elite group we all occupy, we are continuing to exclude them. There must surely be a case for saying that the way to chip away at elitism is to bring as many people into the club as possible, rather than to deny that the club exists or that we don’t belong to it ourselves. I’m sorry, I’m using ‘club’ in a different sense from the way it was used in the other comments here – although it seems to me a useful pun.)
    You may delete this comment if you wish, as it seems as though you will have had a number of complaints already that the article is nitpicking. But I had expected some engagement with what he argues, which only appears in your list at the point about descriptivism (which point I think you have misunderstood). DFW may elide some of the argument, but it is familiar enough: a second-hand knowledge of (perfectly justifiable) descriptivism in academic linguistics led to many English teachers choosing to ignore the existence of rules or norms of language and encouraging instead the use of language for self-expression. I don’t think – and I don’t think DFW implies – that descriptivism inevitably results in this kind of approach to language teaching; and he certainly never claims that anyone ever imagined self-expression to be achievable only if language norms were ignored. But it is a verifiable historical corruption of the idea: even if I can only here point to my own experience of being taught no English grammar at school, and to the numerous defences of this method of teaching which were put forward on the basis of misunderstandings of these linguistic terms.
    Still, I accept that you’ve shown DFW to be no professor of linguistics, and to be capable of errors in English and Latin usage (and no doubt more vulnerable to them than he himself believes). But to suggest that this destroys his argument is a mistake. The ‘regular guy’ stance that you so object to was surely intended to make clear his lack of academic qualifications in this area; his qualification to talk about it all may depend on his being a famous writer, and on his self-professed status as a SNOOT, but neither of these implies that he has made a wide study of the subject. What seems strange to me is that you seem to base your decision on whether to believe his argument on his qualifications as a linguist (as evidenced by his grammatical slips) rather than on the cogency of his presentation of the idea. Even an academic paper isn’t treated like this, and the critic who tried to approach one in such a manner would be considered to be avoiding the main issue. No doubt professional linguists are capable of grammatical slips as well.
    As a side-issue, did you know that DFW provides one of the citations (from a different book) for the OED definition of the word ‘wedgie’? There he spells it without the capital letter. Perhaps it is possible that we could blame the Harper’s copy editor for such a slip. Oh, and his examples of ambiguous writing may not be ambiguous if you read them aloud, but only because in reading them aloud you have resolved the ambiguity (that is, you have chosen to stress one meaning or another despite the absence of any evidence for the relevant meaning). In written language his examples genuinely are ambiguous, and there is no way of deciding except from context (“Does this make sense here? Is this a joke?”) which of the meanings is the relevant one. And as I presume you must have noticed, it was the rules of written language that were under discussion.
    I’m afraid I will have taken up all of your front page with this comment, for which I apologise. But I think we all – including yourself and DFW – agree that a high standard of written English tends to make an argument more convincing. Why, then, did this article so upset you?

  8. No need to apologize — I like long comments, and I certainly don’t delete ones that disagree with me. But I’m not sure why you’re wondering why this article upset me; I thought I made myself clear here:
    “Prescriptivism” is nothing more than linguistic elitism, and like any elitism it’s used as a club to harm the people least able to fight back. I despise it, and that’s why I get testy with anyone who defends it and is used by others to defend it.
    My argument is not with his style of writing (which, as I explicitly said, I enjoy) but the cause he uses it for in this article: presenting the standard prescriptivist case for why certain forms of language are “better,” slightly modified for our more skeptical age with self-deprecating humor and nods in the direction of descriptivism. But basically it’s the same old elitist crap, and I don’t like it.
    I don’t think – and I don’t think I’ve ever implied – that there are no uses for “proper English.” It’s de rigueur for job interviews, formal speeches, and other solemn occasions, and can still be very effective as a literary device. But it is not better than other forms of English; the fact that so many idiots think it is is precisely why it’s important to teach it to those who have not absorbed it at home, so they will not be despised for something that is irrelevant to their qualifications. I never said that it shouldn’t be taught, just that it should be presented as one choice among many; the analogy I like to use is to clothes. Everybody needs a suit to wear to job interviews and weddings, but the suit is no “better” than the t-shirt and jeans they like to wear at home. It’s just different.
    And no, I’m not caught in a double bind. I don’t “attack DFW’s essay on the grounds that his spelling and grammar are poor,” I attack it on the grounds that he’s pretending to an authority he doesn’t have. If the essay had been “written by a student who had never been taught to use Standard English, and whose writing was therefore full of non-standard usages, ambiguous grammar and spelling, and the incorrect use of Latin tags,” nobody would pay attention to it. It’s precisely the fact that DFW is a Famous Writer and presumably knows whereof he speaks that makes it dangerous (and it is — I’ve seen it quoted many, many times), and it’s my aim to destroy that presumption.
    (I’ve had it suggested to me before that the cap W may be Harper’s fault, but that makes no sense — no copy editor in the world would make that change, there’s no reason for it. It could only have been made, and insisted on, by the Great Writer on the basis of his presumed authority. I mean, for chrissake, read the article — they obviously let him write whatever and however he wanted!)

  9. I think – as a reader of the (Manchester) Guardian – I have a lower opinion of copy-editors than you do: I have seen them mangle a perfectly sensible sentence so that it becomes totally meaningless; and I wouldn’t put it past them to check ‘wedgie’ in the dictionary and to choose the definition relating to shoes. But this is only a guess, and may just reflect my own prejudices. Certainly DFW uses non-standard capitalisation throughout the article, which makes me think that whatever his claim to authority is here, it is not as an expert user of Standard English (which still seems to me to be the basis of your attack).
    Actually, as I said, the explicit claims to authority he makes – although you dismiss them as disingenuous – are to being a ‘regular guy’ and, I think, implicitly, as ‘a reasonably intelligent and well-meaning SNOOT’ (which is presented as a theoretical example but seems to fit pretty closely with his autobiographical presentation of himself in the article). At no point does he suggest that he should be listened to because he is a Famous Writer, or even because he has been a teacher of English. Perhaps there is an implicit claim to authority – listen to me because I use language so well, which is the one you attack – but it hardly seems the most important, and your attacks rarely affect the points he is making. His Latin and French could be better; but the few solecisms don’t seem to me to undermine his case.
    Despite your answer, though, I am still puzzled as to why you have taken against the article so much. Your analogy of the smart suit is precisely what DFW proposes throughout the article. I’ll give a few quotes, although I have only a printout of the article and so will be unable to give page references:
    “‘Correct’ English usage is, as a practical matter, a function of whom you’re talking to and how you want that person to respond – not just to your utterance but also to you.”
    He then explicitly labels it a dialect, but only one among many, and argues that “may of these non-SWE dialects have their own highly developed and internally consistent grammars, and that some of these dialects’ usage norms actually make more linguistic/aesthetic sense than do their Standard counterparts.” Perhaps you think this is just a sop in the direction of descriptivism, but it chimes with the main point he goes on to pursue. The main statement seems to me exactly what you have written yourself:
    “The real truth, of course, is that SWE is the dialect of the American elite. That it was invented, codified and promulgated by Privileged WASP Males and is perpetuated as ‘Standard’ by same. That it is the shibboleth of the Establishment and an instrument of political power and class division and racial discrimination and all manner of social inequity. … This reviewer’s opinion, though, is that both students and SWE are better served if the teacher makes his premises explicit, licit and his argument overt, presenting himself as an advocate of SWE’s utility rather than as a prophet of its innate superiority.”
    This is being recommended as a rhetorical technique, but the rest of the article argues exactly the same point: that SWE is a useful dialect to have available, not that it is the best and only means of written communication. (Admittedly the first few pages set out to show that not all the rules of SWE are unhelpful or ridiculous, but again I suspect we can agree that this is true: good writing avoids unintentional ambiguity, and this seems to be the main point of most traditional grammatical rules.)
    So it seems to me you would agree with his spiel to his students, which includes the lines: “In this country, SWE is perceived as the dialect of education and intelligence and power and prestige, and anybody of any race, ethnicity, religion, or gender who wants to succeed in American culture has got to be able to use SWE. … You can believe it’s racist and unjust and decide right here and now to spend every waking minute of your adult life arguing against it, and maybe you should, but I’ll tell you something: If you ever want those arguments to get listened to and taken seriously, you’re going to have to communicate them in SWE…”
    This is perhaps a bit overstated, but it’s surely the same point we are all making. SWE isn’t “better” – says DFW, it is to be defended on grounds of utility (in certain situations) and not because of its “innate superiority” or even on the basis of any linguistic or aesthetic advantages. But as he says – and you agree – it is important to be able to use it so that your arguments will be taken seriously. (As you say above: “If the essay had been ‘written by a student who had never been taught to use Standard English [and all the other things I said]…’ nobody would pay attention to it.”)
    At no point does he argue that Standard English is better than other dialects. He does say that the arguments for why it is worth learning SWE – the ones we’ve just seen – are “baldly elitist,” but he corrects himself in the note: “Or require us openly to acknowledge and talk about elitism, whereas a dogmatic SNOOT’s [prescriptivist] pedagogy is merely elitism in action.” Again, isn’t this what you’ve been saying yourself?
    I don’t know how DFW actually teaches, but I read his article as suggesting that students should be taught that there are advantages in being able to communicate using the dialect traditionally used in elite discourse, so that they can begin to join and open up that elite or even so that they can argue for its injustice in language that will help their views to be accepted. Of course this should be done with every attempt to avoid making other dialects seem intrinsically inferior, and DFW attempts this even if he doesn’t succeed in it. And I’m perfectly willing to believe that his maths is bad.
    I hope you really do like long comments – I shall try to write less in future.

  10. No, no, I really do — as long as you’re making points rather than simply babbling, and you are. Up to a certain point, I can agree; he does indeed make the points you cite about “the dialect of the American elite,” and had he left it at that I’d have had no problem with the thrust of the article (though I still would have enjoyed nitpicking it). But I must insist that that’s put in as a sop to make his argument acceptable to people who instinctively distrust “the traditional SNOOT usage-authority, a figure who pretty much instantiates snobbishness and bow-tied anality.” He wants you to say “Ah, he’s not one of those bow-tied anal fops, he’s a down-to-earth guy like me, so I’ll trust his judgment on these Language Wars I don’t know anything about.” But that’s a lot of crap; his attitude is basically that of the bow-tied brigade, he just doesn’t wear the bow tie. The heart of the whole excessively long article is right here: “Descriptivists are wrong in thinking that the Scientific Method is appropriate to the study of language.” Once you accept that, and accept his appeal to “Trust me,” you’re likely to accept all his dicta on good and bad English, which have no basis in fact except by accident — because the only way to find out how language actually works is via linguistics, which is to say the “Scientific Method” he derides. Since he doesn’t know or understand that, he’s peddling the same old snake oil in a different bottle, asking us to trust him… why? That brings us to this:
    the explicit claims to authority he makes… are to being a ‘regular guy’ and, I think, implicitly, as ‘a reasonably intelligent and well-meaning SNOOT’… At no point does he suggest that he should be listened to because he is a Famous Writer
    Please. Of course he doesn’t explicitly say that; he doesn’t have to. That’s like a corporate mogul saying “I’m just a regular guy…” The fact is, as he knows perfectly well, that his essay is being published and will be read with attention precisely because he is a Famous Writer; if he weren’t, his argument would carry no weight. (Note that my far superior argument is known to hardly anyone, because I’m not a Famous Writer, I’m just another blogger.) He does the “regular guy” thing with panache, and it’s a pleasure to watch him do the dance, but it’s still bullshit. He’s using his fame to try to influence people, which is his right, but his fame doesn’t make his argument right, and it isn’t.
    By the way, I appreciate your coming by to argue, not only because arguing is fun but because I discovered that my link to the article was broken and replaced it with another (not as good, but better than a 404).

  11. Fair enough – I won’t keep prolonging this, because at this rate we will end up colonising the entire internet with our arguing, and I have other work to do besides. Also, it looks like the source of the disagreement is pretty clear now, which is all anyone can hope for in an argument.
    I think you’re right that he takes needless swipes at Descriptivism – and we could certainly do without his ad hominem attacks on professors – but I suppose I’d taken those as relating only to the context of a usage guide. The problem all this is getting at is the question of what a usage guide (far more than a dictionary) is actually for. A descriptivist usage guide is, as you say, a guide to how language actually works, and the equivalent of a sociology textbook. But the fact remains that usage guides are often used, and are often explicitly intended, as the equivalent of ethics manuals: ‘how to write proper’. And this is a useful function. I think dictionaries should certainly describe language; but I think there should be room for books which offer instruction on SWE usage, without claiming it to be an intrinsically superior dialect. This may not reflect any timeless and unchanging standard, and it is almost certainly a ridiculous way to look at language development (as David Crystal likes to point out); but it is a useful practical contribution to modern communications, and can preserve valuable distinctions (like that between ‘refute’ and ‘deny’). I still maintain that this is what the DFW article argues for: in contrast to you, I evidently picked on that as the meat and the question of the correct approach to academic linguistics as the dressing. I guess it’s too confused an article to deserve quite this much exegesis, though.
    I still think it’s unfair and unreasonable to ignore his explicit denial of special authority in favour of the inescapable fact that he is a famous writer: short of writing anonymously, he could hardly have escaped that. Even then, it would only imply that he knew how to write, which is not the same as a claim to understand the language wars better than anyone else. Certainly I’m not inclined to grant novelists any special expertise on the study of linguistics, unless they are Anthony Burgess. I wonder if it is an American thing? I’m surprised when DFW notes the existence of a panel of distinguished writers who comment on the correct use of English – I can’t think of an equivalent in the UK – although it puts me in mind of the American practice of appointing novelists and poets as professors of English regardless of their qualifications for that job (which must surely extend beyond an experience of successful creative writing). This is all speculation, though, and I’m not trying to get at you or anyone else. And as promised, I’ll make this my last contribution (on this subject!) and hope you’ll agree to disagree. Thanks for engaging with the discussion!
    Incidentally, I’m not an English professor, nor even a frustrated one, and I’ve never studied linguistics. But I do speak a few languages, and I teach Latin. If only I were a famous writer too…

  12. Ave atque vale, o Candela! (though I hope you’ll keep visiting)
    You make good points, and it seems the core of our disagreement is in what he intended the core message of his article to be, which only he can say. I confess that I have a hair-trigger sensitivity to any and all arguments of the form “because I say so,” especially when applied to language, so I may have overemphasized that aspect of his piece — but I think it’s pernicious no matter what accompanies it. And sure, usage guides are needed; that’s why I always recommend the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage, which addresses all the usual points of concern but gives you the historical facts as well as the varying judgments made by other authorities and pseudo-authorities and lets you make up your own mind, rather than saying “Say this, not that.” It’s not that I don’t want people making choices about what to say and write, I just want them making choices based on facts and sensible ways of thinking about them.
    I have greatly enjoyed this dialog, and once again am glad I haven’t closed off all past threads to comments, even though it leaves openings for spammers.

  13. Folquerto says:

    Please tell me, where did Horace wrote that indignor quandoque bonus Homerus dormitat? I am uncertain about it, but I have a suspicion that it must be dormitet when put this way. Moreover, I studied the Classics in a grey past, Latin and Greek, and exactly the variant quandoque bonus Homerus dormitat, without the indignor, is the one I was taught. Anybody can be wrong anytime, but please tell me where Horace said it.

  14. No, I quoted it correctly: Ars Poetica 359. Google is your friend, you know.

  15. Folquerto says:

    verum operi longo fas est obrepere somnum.
    You are right!

  16. The problem with your “demolishing” (though I would call it something more along the lines of “totally-the-point-missing”) is that you have no sympathy with Mr. Wallace, or his personal style of writing; this is a matter of taste, no doubt. I consider Wallace’s writing to have what you might something like “perfect pitch,” and find that I am able to admire almost every fanciful turn of phrase in his work; I don’t generally care if/when he makes mistakes in usage, because I’m more interested in his meaning. There’s quite a lot of fractured French in Infinite Jest, for example. But it’s still one of the best novels of the 20th century because it makes its point, forcefully and very beautifully. This could be said of most of Wallace’s writing. I suppose you can’t bear Nabokov or Waugh, either, because they couldn’t spell worth beans. Your loss, mon ami.
    To take just your first complaint against “Tense Present”: Wallace’s mom is a grammarian, hence the “
    à clef” remark, which is intended to imply, kind of slangily, simply that the term is in use regarding real members of his own family, and/or those known to them. I find it hard to believe that this isn’t really obvious. It’s just a little lighthearted shorthand/slang for a the fairly literary audience of Harper’s. The rest of your quarrels are along similar lines–pretty meaningless, except to someone with (a) no sympathy for the writer, and perhaps (b) unwilling or unable to respond to a joke.
    Presumably a lot of Wallace’s attitudes regarding grammar and usage were imbibed early on, in his learned family … in any case, in “Tense Present” he isn’t setting himself up as an authority, only as an interested longtime student, speaker and writer of English.
    What you’re pouncing on isn’t the man himself, nor his style, but the fact that he is a celebrated writer, as you note above; he can hardly help that.

  17. No, I’m afraid you’re quite, quite wrong. I’m a huge fan of both Nabokov and Waugh, and very fond of stylish writing wherever it turns up. I am not opposed to Wallace’s own style (though I think putting it in the company of those two is unfair to it, and causes its overelaborated fronds to wilt in the sun). This is not about his style or his fame (the latter is not the reason I object to his article, it’s the reason I take the trouble to demolish it — if he weren’t famous, nobody would care what he had to say); it is about the fact that he is mouthing off on things he knows nothing about, and he is wrong, and he is quoted over and over again by people as ignorant as he is to support their own ignorance. You might call him the “intelligent design theorist” of language.
    Now, I feel your pain. You have a tremendous crush on DFW the writer and you don’t like to see him attacked, and that’s human. But references to his mother are neither here nor there. The points I make are no more “meaningless” than his article itself, since it focuses on exactly such points. Come on, admit it, you don’t know or care who’s right about the issues I address, you just want DFW to be recognized as the supreme genius you feel he is. All I can say is that you should pick your venues more carefully, and perhaps force yourself to argue with less passion and more cogency. I care nothing about DFW’s family quirks and (in this context) nothing about his style either; all that matters to me is that in this article he is a fatuous blowhard arguing from an authority he does not possess. You are, of course, free to disagree. But you might read my exchange with Folquerto, just above, for an example of how to discuss these matters in a civilized way, without casting aspersions on the reading preferences of someone you don’t know from Adam.

  18. Holy cow. In what way did I cast aspersions on your reading preferences? What I made was a joke, something it becomes increasingly evident that you are not in a position to follow. This joke was suggesting that anybody afflicted with excessive punctilio in the matter of spelling would be excluded from the company of Nabokov and Waugh, neither of whom could spell. I apologize if you found this joke uncivilized.
    You can’t “feel my pain,” because I am not in pain. Sure I have a crush on David Foster Wallace, but it doesn’t bother me in the slightest when other people can’t stand him (many do not and who can blame them, for he can get as tedious as Nabokov can, which is to say, very.) I just popped in to say that in the case of Wallace, you may think you get it, but you absolutely do not. And it’s just not on to be dissing people for your own deficiency, here. But I really didn’t mean to make you mad, and I’m sorry about that, and I am quite willing to disagree cheerfully with you on the many literary matters upon which you and I are absolutely certain to clash. But as I was saying, you did not understand this article, which is not the law handed down from on high by a self-appointed authority, but rather consists entirely in the ruminations of an interested party whose mom is a grammarian, and who is himself a writer and interested in language, and who has had to teach school for a living.
    I don’t think I would have written on your blog, except that the article or your misapprehension of it went and made you so weirdly (and to my mind, incoherently) mad. And competitively so, in a manner where you have to say–yourself!–that you’ve ‘demolished’ another writer, famous or not, which one would think should be a judgment reserved for others to make. This phrase, ‘fatuous blowhard’! What are you so scorched about? To say you “aren’t opposed” to Wallace’s style but accuse it of having “overelaborated fronds” (?!) Jeeps.
    Doesn’t surprise me a bit that you cite an instance of your correcting an interlocutor as the very last word in civilized discourse. (I kid!)

  19. What am I mad about? The fact that you come in here, tell me I’m completely wrong without addressing a single one of my points (except for the irrelevant remark about his mother), accuse me of having no feeling for style and no sense of humor, and repeat the offense in your second message (where the mask of politeness drops even further). You say “you did not understand this article” when what you mean is that I did not agree with and appreciate the article. Believe me, I understand it all too well. Do you seriously think I would waste my time attacking it if it were nothing more than “ruminations” of a teacher and the son of a grammarian? Life is too short. I’m attacking it because it is an extremely influential manifesto in favor of elitist prescriptions and against the eternal bugbear of descriptivism; I’d go dig up some links to people quoting it as Holy Writ in attacking lexicographers and linguists, but it’s not worth the trouble, since there’s obviously no changing your mind. But since you think Nabokov tedious, there’s really no point discussing the matter with you anyway. And you accuse others of not having an appreciation for style!
    Go, worship DFW in good health, but don’t pretend you understand issues that you neither know nor care about.

  20. Thanks for a great read, and for showing me it’s not necessarily my fault when I don’t understand something DFW writes (e.g. his refutation of the idea of Private Language or Colors). I would observe, though, that some of your attacks do seem sort of personal and ad hominem. And it seems to me presumptuous to think you know another’s motives. For example:
    “He is more intent on proving that he knows how to use a big dictionary than in reading what it says there.”
    “the only point of his using it (since nobody else ever has or ever will, unless they foolishly copy it from him) is to make a point of his extreme accuracy in the tiniest of matters… and he gets it wrong.”
    “But I must insist that that’s put in as a sop to make his argument acceptable”
    I actually thought the capitalization of the word “Wedgies” was a stylistic decision. To me it sort of emphasizes the word and makes more vivid the image.
    My first visit here. I’ll be back. Thanks again.

  21. Glad you liked the rant. But my very use of the word “rant” acknowledges it’s not exactly a detached, scholarly analysis. It seriously pisses me off when people use a soapbox earned for other reasons to spread noxious misinformation about language. Don’t worry, DFW can take it.

  22. Just to keep the comment thread going: I think prescriptivism is more conventionalist than elitist. Most prescriptivists aren’t especially elite; they’re most often badly-paid eighth-grade teachers, junior-college comp teachers, etc. — or those in general whose small upward mobility depended on education, and who are only elite in a very relative sense. (You’ll even see, “A HArvard PhD should know about the split-infinitive rule”, etc.)
    On the other hand, prescriptivists probably are elitists after all. I just thought I’d say something.

  23. Oh, I agree about “most prescriptivists” — my point is that prescriptivism is inherently elitist, and the fact that most people have bought into it is just one more chapter in the sad history of people stampeding directly away from their own best interests. (See: politics.)

  24. Christopher M says:

    Just out of curiosity, is there some source for the claim that Nabokov (or Waugh, for that matter) couldn’t spell? I’ve never heard it before, and the only relevant page I’ve found with Google so far is a New York Times article that says:

    Nabokov is punctilious about spelling.

    I’m not saying it isn’t true, just wondering if it’s documented somewhere. The Boyd biography?
    Based on the chronology of this comments thread, I expect a reply circa 2009.

  25. Christopher M says:

    I should have linked to the Times article, which is here.

  26. I suspect maria was simply full of crap. (Sorry, maria, if you’re still checking in, but I calls ‘em as I sees ‘em. And if you have actual evidence for that claim, I trust you’ll provide it.) I can’t think of anyone less likely to be a poor speller than VV.

  27. Well this was just about the most delightful way for a lover of aesthetics, language and all things excellent to spend the morning. DFW drubbed, de-fended and wizened; Nabokov vindicated; and elitists everywhere enervated (myself included, he writes with a sigh)…
    Thanks muchly, language hat.

  28. My pleasure! Mind you, I’m perfectly capable of being elitist myself — just one of the many reasons I shouldn’t run the world.

  29. Ultimately, it’s because of your self deprecating style such as in that last sentence you’ve written that I’m always happy to hear your opinions squire.
    Like the illusory left-or-right dichotomy of politics, I think an either/or situation on the prescriptivism/descriptivism front is pretty silly.
    Sometimes being prescriptivist is not being elitist – in some teaching situations, in some discussions with peers and in certain circumstances to express opposition to a stylistic clanger (of course that’s personal), I think it’s perfectly acceptable to voice an ‘opinion of conservation’.
    But likewise it’s all about the communication and as long as we understand each other then it’s all good. I love neologisms and concatamerizings and useful verbializations and emergent rephrasings and translanguage pollenizing. It makes language dynamic and all the more beautiful, even for the linguistically unedumacated such as myself.
    Anyway, I didn’t come here to argue (wellll) – I just noticed the mention of your 4th blog birthday on wood s lot and came by for a gander. I don’t get across here as much as I’d like — some of us must devote energy to making our homes look pretty so that the dirth of comments doesn’t stop people visiting!
    Many happy returns and thanks for the entertainment. (Who’s DFW? Heh.)

  30. Glad you dropped by, and I’m not sure which I appreciate more, the fact that wood s lot regularly wishes LH a happy anniversary or that it’s accompanied by that wonderful photo of a crowd of hats.

  31. Christopher M says:

    I wrote to Maria to ask her, and she couldn’t recall offhand but graciously offered to poke around her books when she gets a chance and let me know if she finds anything. I’ll report back if I hear anything. In the meantime, here’s an interesting anecdote about Nabokov’s synaesthesia (he experienced letters or sounds as having specific, characteristic colors), which may be relevant but doesn’t clearly cut one way or the other:

    Though it’s by no means especially a writer’s ailment, Somerset Maugham , William Burroughs, Jung and Nabokov were all sufferers – indeed, the latter insisted his mother take his spelling bricks back to the shop because they were the “wrong” colours.

    From this article by Julie Myerson.

  32. Loved your evisceration of DFW’s article!
    Other than the gibe about “nickname a clef” (which I understood–without much difficulty–to mean “codename”), everything else was spot on. I’m especially glad you didn’t let that slithy “…one Charles Fries’…” bit get by without reproach. What bad manners that man has!
    You certainly could have piled it on a bit more without much trouble. For example: right after the Fries’ bit comes an infelicitous use of “epigone”. Is he trying to say here that the American College Dictionary is a second-rate follower of the “notoriously liberal” Webster’s Third? I guess so. Use of this term for an inanimate object, though, only muddies its meaning. “Norm-wise” is also lame, and doesn’t make much sense as a modifier for the sentence it heads. His whole argument with the hypothetical physics textbook and how some americans believe electricity runs better downhill was shockingly illogical and immaterial.
    I suspect you don’t really appreciate DFW’s prose stylings as much as you profess to in some of your follow-up comments. I don’t see how you could! He’s verging on Dan Brown-ness. To even bring him up with Nabokov and Waugh, as one person did, makes my eyes burn with anger!

  33. Oh, I understood “nickname a clef”—I just didn’t think it a proper or felicitous use of à clef. And yeah, I don’t want to claim DFW is my favorite writer or anything, I’m just trying to make sure my criticism is seen for what it is: an attack on his pretensions to knowledge, not his writerly virtues.

  34. Matthew Young says:

    Anyone who has been grabbed by the waistband, hoisted onto a rusted bolt seven feet off the bathroom floor, and left to dangle over the urinal knows that “wedgie” can be capitalized.

  35. Amos Quito says:

    This is not to say that your article is without merit, but it seems to me that such an emotionally charged and visceral screed about the shortcomings of an article would be better directed at an author that is not presently dead. The errors no doubt exist, but it seems it would have been possible for you to point them out with a little less malice. It’s not like the guy can address your concerns here.

    Congratulations on your sound walloping of a corpse, I guess.

  36. Perhaps you didn’t notice that the post was written in 2002, long before the demise of DFW. Are you really suggesting that now he’s dead, all less-than-worshipful references to him should be removed from the internet? Good luck with that. But congratulations on parading your own superior tastefulness and virtue, I guess.

  37. I’m guessing the belligerent commenter to whom I just responded got here by way of this Reddit thread; I’m pleased to see very little of that kind of ill-informed belligerence in the thread, which is largely sensible (and contains an entertaining derail about Wittgenstein).

  38. Mongolian_Colonizer says:

    Hey, I was going to mention the Reddit thread, but you found it.

    I was just wondering, you’re a Linguist, are the Wittgenstein references in that thread accurate? I’m never quite sure whether his philosophy is self contained, or does have so easy an application to Linguistics…

  39. I don’t really know; philosophy isn’t my thing, so I’ve never read much Wittgenstein. I remember when my brother was a philosophy major many years ago, he would quote Wittgenstein to me on the subject of language, and I would get annoyed because Wittgenstein clearly didn’t know anything about language from a linguistic point of view and was just using his own intuitions (which linguists know are entirely unreliable), but I haven’t done any further investigation since then.

    Also, I should point out that although I did all the academic training to become a linguist, I decided I hated academia and quit before finishing my dissertation; by profession I’m an editor (which gives me an interesting double perspective on language).

  40. Mongolian_Colonizer says:

    I remembering reading something of Chomsky’s where he says that Wittgenstein is not talking about linguistics so much as words in context, or grammar if you will.

    Either way, I’m usually into literature and not linguistics, but I really liked this piece. It’s funny that you were doing this back in 2002, so many people on that thread seem convinced that this is new information hot off the press. I’m kind of adverse to Wallace’s style, but you pretty much summarize it perfectly:

    “establishing a folksy/learned persona that is intended to convince you of both his bona fides and his credentials, and conceding enough of his opponents’ arguments that he hopes to disarm the less truculent of them”

    I can tell you honestly that he quite simply doesn’t have the literary chops of somebody like DeLillo or Will Self, and it seems everybody’s happy to cite pieces like these as evidence of his expertise in every area.

  41. that’s a very stupid moniker to use, i would advise you against using it, the commenter above, we never had any colonizers and the manchus were the only ones whom we joined in alliance fyi, and one proclaiming oneself to be whoever’s colonizer can’t be like a *decent* person maybe or one can learn to distinguish between adverse vs averse? i mean be kind of like at least literate in one’s own native language to however criticize DFW, imo

  42. I think DFW’s mysterious “oo-on” for on is in fact [ɔən], which I certainly have heard on the streets of NYC.

  43. I suppose that’s possible, but it would be a very odd way to write it. (Why not “aw-on”?)

  44. Ten years on and this piece is still relevant:
    Sigh, curse, etc.

  45. Sigh indeed. What a load of crap: “And nowadays — this is where things get interesting — people who write in CSWE actually mark themselves as untrustworthy by doing so.”

  46. John Cowan says:

    For the record, “Mongolian colonizer” can just as well mean a Mongol who colonizes as someone who colonizes Mongols. While the Mongol Empire was not primarily a colonial empire, the Mongols did leave various colonies behind when the empire shrank.

  47. John Cowan says:

    Ironically, of course the “Grantland piece”, though certainly untrustworthy, disloyal, unhelpful, unriendly, discourteous, unkind, disobedient, cheerless, chintzy, cowardly, unlean, and above all irreverent, is nevertheless written in Standard English using an informal register.

  48. John Cowan says:

    Why not “aw-on”?

    Because in New York, the mid back vowels are raised, so that /ɔ/ sounds more like [u] to ears that are used to hearing /ɔ/ pronounced [ɒ]. (My NORTH=FORCE is [or], not [ɔr], for example.) There’s no real likelihood of a collision, since NYC /u/ is partially fronted, as in most Englishes these days.

  49. goatlord says:

    I’m so happy to have found this blog! In all my years of pissing around the on the Internet, it’s the only blog I’ve found that strikes me as worthy of subscribing to. I especially appreciate your back-and-forth with the user “candle” in the comments above; it’s a perfect example of the tone in which these “language wars” should, I feel, be conducted. I don’t know why it’s so hard to discover reliable sources on this subject, but it absolutely is.

    I think one of the triumphs of this blog post is that you’ve outSNOOTed DFW, which, given your position in this debate, is ironic and more than a little amusing. It’s also pretty impressive because DFW, even if he does have a tendency to “punch above his weight,” as you stated, is a more a competent SNOOT than most. I haven’t thought long enough about how your line-by-line needling of his article may have corrupted your more essential points in some way, but if it hasn’t, does it matter to you that I at least found it curious and distracting? It’s a little weird to notice that you’re willing to use that boost of righteous anger that’s available to those on the descriptivist side of the “language wars” while also enjoying the authority of a preeminent SNOOT.

    What I took away from DFW’s article depends not at all on whatever sneaky authority inheres in his status as a Great Writer; it depends on the quality of his exploration of the ways prescriptivism is useful and not useful (although, yes, the article isn’t limited to that). I just don’t understand how anyone can dismiss prescriptivism as being only elitist. DFW’s example of the poisonous mushroom is a good one. The placement of “only” in that sentence is most certainly ambiguous, as candle pointed out, and the meaning of that sentence is critically important, maybe even life-or-death important. Of course, most instances of ambiguity are not so dramatic. But still, if I’m adhering to prescriptivist principles in an effort to communicate in a way that allows others to apprehend my meaning as clearly and in as little time as possible, isn’t that a kindness?

    I’ve read that DFW had his students read George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” (https://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/orwell46.htm). In that essay, Orwell compares the following two passages:

    “I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”

    “Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.”

    Wouldn’t everyone agree that the first passage is better than the first? Not just different, but better? And it’s better while also being less elitist. It seems to me that prescriptivism, in addition to simply being useful, can actually be anti-elitist.

  50. Ivor Brown said that “success or failure in competitive activities” was far too blunt, and should be replaced by “optimum or inadequate performance in the trend of competitive activities.”

    Of course, “better” begs the question “better for what?” Both versions have their advantages in different situations. Platitudinous bumfodder has its uses too.

  51. goatlord says:

    Better for communication, image, precision, brevity, accessibility, aesthetics—really any criteria that comes to mind. Wouldn’t any argument for the effectiveness of the latter be exactly the kind of reasoning that this blog post rails against?

    Take a guy like William Tyndale, whose translations brought the word of the Bible to the layperson. Think about the incredible impact his careful attention to usage had on the world, how anti-elitist it was in the most fundamental and essential sense. In this case, what a descriptivist might call nitpicking or hair splitting had tremendous consequences and was an extremely generous and courageous gesture in the service of people who historically have been “clubbed” by the elitism of SNOOTs. Again, dramatic! I’m not exactly sure how all of this applies and to what extent you could reasonably say Tyndale’s effort was prescriptivist. What do you think, LH?

  52. I think what I said almost a decade ago, above:

    My argument is not with his style of writing (which, as I explicitly said, I enjoy) but the cause he uses it for in this article: presenting the standard prescriptivist case for why certain forms of language are “better,” slightly modified for our more skeptical age with self-deprecating humor and nods in the direction of descriptivism. But basically it’s the same old elitist crap, and I don’t like it.

    I don’t think – and I don’t think I’ve ever implied – that there are no uses for “proper English.” It’s de rigueur for job interviews, formal speeches, and other solemn occasions, and can still be very effective as a literary device. But it is not better than other forms of English; the fact that so many idiots think it is is precisely why it’s important to teach it to those who have not absorbed it at home, so they will not be despised for something that is irrelevant to their qualifications. I never said that it shouldn’t be taught, just that it should be presented as one choice among many; the analogy I like to use is to clothes. Everybody needs a suit to wear to job interviews and weddings, but the suit is no “better” than the t-shirt and jeans they like to wear at home. It’s just different.

    I’m glad you like the blog so much, and I hope it will continue to entertain and perhaps inform you, but I’m at a loss as to what more I can say that will convince you if the many, many words expended above haven’t. I have never pretended to “the authority of a preeminent SNOOT,” I simply say what I know, and I am always willing to back it up with references, or to admit I’m wrong if I’m shown to be wrong. And I have always been a huge fan of good use of English; much of what I’ve written on LH is a testament to that. I think you are confusing prescriptivism with appreciation for good writing, a common enough conflation but one that by now makes me tired even to think about. If you can isolate a specific issue that I have not already dealt with somewhere up there, I’ll be glad to discuss it.

  53. Jesse Wiedinmyer says:

    You do realise that the essay in question is actually descriptivist in intent, no?

  54. You did read what I had to say about it, no?

  55. glad candle wuz here to make the pts that deserved being made. I 2 think u misinterpreted the crux of DFW’s argument, prolly cuz as u say you’ve got a prescriptivist-trigger–like, youve got yr gloves up from the starting bell.
    Okay so writing in broken English is harder than I thought :) But seriously, impressed as I am by your mastery of SWE, I suspect you weren’t giving the article a fair read. For me the central questions were “why should we care about prescriptivism? And, if we do, on what authority can we rely?”
    You seem not to be very sympathetic to DFW’s endorsement of ADMAU’s “ethical appeal” and you’re certainly not overly impressed by his authorial chops… but given that you agree that it’s important to have this suit in the wardrobe, and you’re an editor yourself, I’m wondering where you think prescriptive authority comes from?

    Also, I think Wedgie is funnier.

  56. also, if I recall correctly, comp theory is what we called literary criticism back in undergrad. e.g. Derrida, Lacan, Foucault or “the Terrible Triad of French poststructuralists” as Camille Paglia put it. But I was in the engineering department so I could be way off base.

  57. I’m wondering where you think prescriptive authority comes from?

    From the collective usage of the “better sort” — the people with expensive educations and an innate desire/need to close ranks and keep out the hoi polloi — as codified (from the eighteenth century on) in books by their lackeys, the clerks who don’t have jobs that require power suits but who have learned the crucial linguistic signifiers and are helping pay their rent by writing books about them. Some of them are magisterial (“You don’t know much of anything, you ignorant git, but maybe if you buy my book you can avoid at least a few of your more egregious blunders”), some would-be-democratic (“Buy my book and you can keep the better sort from sneering at you and maybe get a better job!”), some solipsistic (“This usage is good because I like it; that one is bad because I hate it”), but they all implicitly accept the idea that there is a “better sort” and the language they use is the better sort of language. I despise that attitude root and branch; as is obvious, I enjoy wielding Standard Literary English and have nothing against it as such, any more than I have anything against suits as such, but it is not any “better” than any other dialect of this multifarious language, and treating it as such — and treating those who haven’t learned to wield it as lesser — is deeply repugnant to me.

    Also, I assure you I did not misinterpret the crux of DFW’s argument. You may not like what I had to say about it, but that’s a separate issue.

  58. I just ran across a comment in a MetaFilter thread about women’s fashion that expresses, mutatis mutandis, how I feel about language:

    But really the pressure should be on people who treat those wearing makeup better to change, not on women to be more compliant either direction. People with or without makeup or fancy attire deserve the same amount of respect and equal opportunities.

  59. In case it wasn’t clear, I think you dropped an impressive smackdown on DFW’s SNOOT cred (which, let’s be honest, is as important as his Famous Author status in making his case) and I give props to all y’all in the comments here for some sweet argumentation. But I still think we are talking past each other.

    I apologize if this is overly personal, but I think your righteous anger against elitist prescriptivism is causing you to misinterpret his thesis here. I agree with candle, I don’t find DFW to be advocating SWE as “better” at all but merely one dialect of this multifarious language. But, to quote from the essay “What the student heard was just another PWM rationalizing why his Group and his English were top dog”

    But to get back to the crux of the matter, I think your answer for the source of prescriptivist authority is extremely telling… because you gave a descriptive answer! The question I was trying to ask was “where do the so-called guardians of SWE get their authority?” and you gave me a list of who those authority figures are! Do you see the disconnect here?

    Now, you could say that there’s no such thing as SWE and the rules are all bogus, but you just rekked DFW using rules from somewhere so the question is how do we know that your rules are right and DFW gets to eat crow?

    To me, this is the crux of the essay (helpfully labelled as such), the question of who gets to decide what should be included in SWE. And yes, I just used the “s” word, but please, hold your fire! Speaking for myself, but I think DFW would agree, this is not a moral judgement! And incidentally I don’t think he’s being flippant when he says that it may indeed be worthwhile to dedicate your life to undermining the preeminence of SWE and eliminating the stigma against other dialects.

    So I’ll ask again, and I’m genuinely curious: as a descriptivist, how do you decide “objectively” which sources to include in your survey of SWE? How do you choose between conflicting rule sets? Because whatever his flaws, I don’t think DFW’s position is quite so vituperous as you make it out; he’s happy that some dude published a style guide based on his own best judgement.

  60. Well, I’m not quite sure what you’re asking for. There are a number of linguistic descriptions of English, the most recent and comprehensive being The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language by Huddleston and Pullum; the style guide I always recommend is the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage, which gives both historical facts and the judgments made by various authorities. As for DFW, I suppose I may have overreacted and perceived more snootiness than was in fact there, but such are the perils of my fiery passion for descriptivism and democracy!

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