Yesterday’s post was on the jokey side, and I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that it elicited a lot of “pet peeve” comments; people do love to complain about language use. As Mark Liberman points out in that Language Log post I just linked, “millions of people are intensely interested in speech and language, but have no outlet for their interest except for prescriptivist complaints, and no model for linguistic analysis other than the display of invented ‘rules’ by popular language mavens.” I’m going to get more serious for a moment, and explain what I think is wrong with those complaints, and why I’m trying to get past my own versions of them to the extent I can.
It seems to me there are two basic reasons for the loud griping against misspelling, “bad grammar,” and the like. One is that the gripers have expended a great deal of time and effort in learning the “rules,” and they are (not unreasonably) proud of having done so; furthermore, such mastery is of considerable value in getting ahead in the world—and, of course, to admit that the “rules” frequently are unnecessary or wrong would be to devalue their own education. The pride is natural and, up to a point, harmless; the problem comes when it spills over into a contempt for those who have not mastered the rules, which brings us to the second, less attractive, reason: the need to feel superior, to set oneself apart from the “lesser breeds without the Law.” I can be wrily amused when people simply gripe about the evils of misused apostrophes, but I can’t take it lightly when they go on to say (as they frequently do) “I would never date/befriend/hire anyone who said/wrote [insert pet peeve here].” This is blatant elitism, exactly parallel to Victorians who sniffed “not our sort, dear” of anyone who wore the wrong sort of coat to dinner or spoke with too much enthusiasm or the hint of an accent. And of course it carries with it the perpetual fear of going wrong oneself; when, as so frequently happens, someone commits a faux pas in the very act of mocking another’s “error” and has it pointed out to them, the facade of superiority collapses and the mocker becomes abjectly apologetic—not for mocking, of course, but for having failed to clear the high bar of utter perfection of speech and writing.
The claim, of course, is that it is not simple elitism at work, that “bad grammar” reveals incoherent thought, impedes communication, and degrades the language. All of this is nonsense. I have never had the slightest problem understanding someone who split infinitives, used “hopefully” as a sentence modifier, or perpetrated any of the million other alleged crimes against English that fill the books (and the wallets) of the language mavens, and I don’t believe the gripers have either. When I have had problems understanding pieces of writing, and have had to go back and reread to figure out what is being said, it’s because the writers have expressed themselves badly in standard English. There is such a thing as bad writing, but it has nothing to do with split infinitives. And there is such a thing as a grammatical mistake, but such mistakes are made by children or foreigners who have not fully mastered the language. “That man bad” is bad (Standard) English; “to boldly go” is not only good English, it’s good writing (as proved by the fact that the Star Trek motto is instantly memorized by everyone who hears it).
As for degrading the language, it should suffice to reflect on the fact that a universally acknowledged high point in the written history of English was the period of Shakespeare and the King James Bible, at which time there was no such thing as spelling and grammar (in the maven sense). People slung words around as the spirit moved them, inventing them, jamming them together in unheard-of ways, verbing nouns and nouning verbs with enthusiasm, and generally wreaking havoc. But since there were as yet no mavens to tell them they couldn’t do that, they simply went on creating masterpieces. If anything, the list of rules and infractions that began growing in the 18th century has worked to stifle creativity, and the best writers have always been willing to break the rules. Of course, when you point out in grammar school that Shakespeare or Twain or whoever violated some commandment, you’re told that they’re allowed to do what they want because they’re great. You, on the other hand, are just a foot soldier on the muddy battlefield of language and had better keep your head down and do as you’re told. Fie, I say! Speak as thou wilt shall be the whole of the law, and damn the cramp rays!