A month ago, Robert Hartwell Fiske, editor and publisher of The Vocabula Review, very kindly sent me a link to a new article, “Making Peace in the Language Wars” by Bryan A. Garner. I told Fiske I was definitely going to write about it, and he must be thinking (if he remembers it at all) that I’m completely feckless. Well, I’m not (not completely, anyway); I am a procrastinator, but it’s mainly that the subject kept expanding in my mind and I wasn’t quite sure how to deal with it. Now, prodded by a recent discussion of who can be called a linguist and a NY Times article that won’t stay online free for long (and I’m afraid the Garner piece is now available only to subscribers—mea culpa!), I’m finally getting around to it. Warning: this entry will be long and full of ambivalence.

If Garner’s name sounds familiar, it may be because his book A Dictionary of Modern American Usage was the pretext for David Foster Wallace’s notorious Harper’s screed “Tense Present,” wherein he tried manfully to demolish the citadel of scientific linguistics using his patented arsenal of whimsy, faux-plebeian rhetoric, rambling footnotes, and willful distortion. (For more detail, see my own screed here.) Garner, like Wallace, wants to present himself as the honest broker, bringing both sides together in a ring-dance of reconciliation; in fact, both of them are dyed-in-the-wool prescriptivists whose contempt for science is continually breaking through. Here’s a representative passage from Garner:

In other words, the spirit of the day demands that you not think critically — or at least not think ill — of anyone else’s use of language. If you believe in good grammar and linguistic sensitivity, you’re the problem. And there is a large, powerful contingent in higher education today — larger and more powerful than ever before — trying to eradicate any thoughts about good and bad grammar, correct and incorrect word choices, effective and ineffective style.

Of course this “large, powerful contingent” consists of linguists and those inspired by them, and he names names:

Yet several linguists assert, essentially, that there is no right and wrong in language. Consider what one well-known linguist, Robert A. Hall, Jr., famously said: “There is no such thing as good and bad (or correct and incorrect, grammatical and ungrammatical, right and wrong) in language. … A dictionary or grammar is not as good an authority for your speech as the way you yourself speak.” Some of the better theorists in the mid-twentieth century rejected this extremism. Here, for example, is how Max Black responded:
“This extreme position … involves a confusion between investigating rules (or standards, norms) and prescribing or laying down such rules. Let us grant that a linguist, qua theoretical and dispassionate scientist, is not in the business of telling people how to talk; it by no means follows that the speakers he is studying are free from rules which ought to be recorded in any faithful and accurate report of their practices. A student of law is not a legislator; but it would be a gross fallacy to argue that therefore there can be no right or wrong in legal matters.”

But he’s not totally blinded by prejudice; he’s willing to admit the failings of the home team:

Describers have always tried to amass linguistic evidence — the more the better. Prescribers are often content to issue their opinions ex cathedra. In fact, inadequate consideration of linguistic evidence has traditionally been the prescribers’ greatest vulnerability.

Here’s his proposed division of labor:

Prescribers should be free to advocate a realistic level of linguistic tidiness — without being molested for it — even as the describers are free to describe the mess all around them. If the prescribers have moderate success, then the describers should simply describe those successes. Education entailing normative values has always been a part of literate society. Why should it suddenly stop merely because describers see this kind of education as meddling with natural forces?
Meanwhile, prescribers need to be realistic. They can’t expect perfection or permanence, and they must bow to universal usage. But when an expression is in transition — when only part of the population has adopted a new usage that seems genuinely undesirable — prescribers should be allowed, within reason, to stigmatize it. There’s no reason to tolerate wreckless driving in place of reckless driving. Or wasteband in place of waistband. Or corollary when misused for correlation. Multiply these things by 10,000, and you have an idea of what we’re dealing with. There are legitimate objections to the slippage based not just on widespread confusion but also on imprecision of thought, on the spread of linguistic uncertainty, on the etymological disembodiment of words, and on decaying standards generally.

As a matter of fact, I’m not entirely averse to such a division. It’s quite true that most linguists are not interested in “good usage” or competent to decide it, and I believe there is such a thing and it’s worth cultivating. Ideally, linguists would describe the attested facts of language and style experts would build on their evidence to make recommendations about which usages should be preferred.
The problem is that the mavens, the likes of Bryan A. Garner and David Foster Wallace, don’t really believe that linguists know what they’re talking about—don’t, in fact, understand what scientific linguistics is or how it works. This is the gaping hole in the division-of-labor idea. It is as if the people who drew up recommendations for healthy diet and lifestyle held doctors at arm’s length and accused them of not accepting the idea of right and wrong in diet. Ideally, students would be exposed to introductory linguistics classes at an early age so that they would have a basic grasp of language variety, language change, and the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign and would know how to distinguish valuable inheritances from invented myths. Instead, people swallow whatever some self-designated expert decides says, and we get nonsense like the alleged misuse of such. From Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage (valuable precisely because it carefully investigates the historical facts before making recommendations), s.v. “such”:

Back in the 18th and 19th centuries a few commentators managed to puzzle themselves about the word order in constructions like these:
…said that he never remembered such a severe winter as this —Jane Austen, letter, 17 Jan. 1809
…but such a dismal Sight I never saw —Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe,1719

They convinced themselves that such in this construction must be a misuse for so. They were wrong and nobody believes it is a misuse any more, but since the subject had been started, almost nobody was willing to forget it, which they should have. The 20th-century focus was on the use of such as an intensive, as in “He’s such a nice boy” and “She has such beautiful manners.” The assertion is that this use of such is informal and not to be used in formal writing… The tortured reasoning of the 18th- and 19th-century pundits was irrelevant, and the 20th-century concerns are unnecessary. You need not worry about adverbial such at all.

Even worse than deciding that a perfectly good usage is wrong is confusing people about words that, left to themselves, they have no problem using; again from the Concise Dictionary of English Usage, s.v. “between”: “Actually, the enormous amount of ink spilled in the explication of the subtleties of between and among has been largely a waste; it is difficult for a native speaker of English who is not distracted by irrelevant considerations to misuse the two words.”
So for the time being we must depend upon people with both linguistic training and a sense of style; this is a niche I try to fill here at Languagehat, and it is part of what linguist John McWhorter is trying to do with his new book Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care, discussed in the NY Times article (by Emily Eakin) I mentioned earlier:

Mr. McWhorter, 38, a professor of linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a policy research group in New York City, is hardly the first to complain about Americans’ brazen disregard for their native tongue. But unlike many others, he says the problem is not an epidemic of bad grammar.
As a linguist, he says, he knows that grammatical rules are arbitrary and that in casual conversation people have never abided by them. Rather, he argues, the fault lies with the collapse of the distinction between the written and the oral. Where formal, well-honed English was once de rigueur in public life, he argues, it has all but disappeared, supplanted by the indifferent cadences of speech and ultimately impairing our ability to think.

Now, I suspect that McWhorter is exaggerating, and I certainly deplore the tired “blame the ’60s” approach, but he has the background and the chops to make the case. If more deplorers were like him, I would be more inclined to pay attention.
As for the “who’s a linguist” question: with understanding of even the basic elements of linguistic science as rare as it is, I award the title to anyone who has a good grasp of them, just as we call anyone who knows how to use a telescope and a star chart and spends time at it an astronomer, regardless of their day job. This is, of course, a thoroughly self-serving definition, because it means that yes, Virginia, I am a linguist.
I will doubtless have more to say about these matters, but it’s late, I’m tired of writing, and you’re doubtless even more tired of reading me if you’ve made it this far. So let’s call it a day, and I’ll deal with any issues that may be brought up in the comments.


  1. I think prescriptivism is intimately tied to the need of 9th-grade English teachers who aren;t terribly well educated themselves to maintain dominance over their classes. And by extension, the maintenance of gentility by people who are only thinly distinguished from the mass. And by extension, the dominance of a new notion of political power and bourgeois elitism.
    If you haven’t already, try to find Ivan Illich’s “Shadow Work”, which (in a piece called “vernacular Values”) describes the beginning of prescriptive grammar in Spain. Something like “Teaching people that they don’t know how to speak their native language” is his summary of the case.
    His “In the Vineyard of the Text” is a history of bookmaking and also silent reading.
    Illich says many of the things Foucault does, but infinitely more straightforwardly and from a Catholic perspective.
    My Old French textbook gives up in the beginning. “Old French doesn’t have rules, but only tendencies”.

  2. “with understanding of even the basic elements of linguistic science as rare as it is, I award the title to anyone who has a good grasp of them”
    But wouldn’t this exclude many Chomsky-bots? There needs to be some sort of loophole here, I think.

  3. The NYT has a generous blogger-friendly policy – if you append ” &partner=USERLAND” to one of their URLs then it stays live. I could almost like the paper, for that, but there’s still the “no cartoons” thing.
    Apropropos the nutritionist example: it’s more as though dietic prescriptivists are furious that persons continue to investigate the biochemical mechanisms of digestion even of foods that are clearly bad for you, the shame!

  4. Thank you, zizka and des, for the book recommendation and the permalink trick respectively.
    Baloney: Heh heh heh!

  5. As a self-described descriptivist, I must say that my biggest problem with Fiske–and it is mostly Fiske, as far as I am concerned, because I find Garner’s book charming and useful (note: his book is published by my employer, whose books I do not always like) and as I do when I read the newspapers, I recognize Garner’s biases when I see them, filter them out, and move on–and others with the same affliction of acute grammar zealotry, is that the decrying of the decline of grammar (and it is grammar we are talking about; I am leaving McWhorther out of this for the moment) concentrates on the exceptional cases. Our grammar–first extrapolated from usage, anyway–persists because it tends to be followed more than not, by the writers and speakers who matter. That is, I think, the substance of your MW Concise extract, too.
    The key to being a successful descriptivist, of course, is to apply the bias filter everywhere, to know the mistakes people tend to make, to know what they believe to be correct or to be grammatical, and then, rather than taking a grocer’s apostrophe like a beating, to note it as a data point, and move on. As a descriptivist, I filter through the mistakes, the bad writing (or try to: sometimes I fail), and in the end, I usually come through with the message the writer intended, despite whatever roadblocks and potholes he has put in the way. Even for the writers who do not matter, what is intended is usually what is understood. That is enough for me.
    But prescriptivists are useful, even the ones met at parties who insist that “anxious” and “eager” should not be used as synonyms (I referred her to the OED, sense 3). They reinject the rules in a forceful way, even when they get them wrong. Without those chanticleers of grammar, we might forget it all, along with everything else we haven’t remembered from high school. You could call those grammar harridans griots, passing down the chants of the ages so that they are not forgotten. What other group in our world has such endurance?
    Of course, my descriptivist mindset is contradictory to my misanthropic belief that most people are stupid and lazy and wouldn’t remember or bother to breathe if the breeze didn’t constantly remind them, no more than they would remember how to write if they didn’t have to keep signing checks to pay minimums on vast credit card bills.
    Regarding McWhorter: My dear fool, you cannot blame the Sixties unless you are willing to take back all of the changes our nation has undergone since the First World War. The nation as a whole has never perfectly spoken or perfectly written according to the rules of grammar; we simply are just hearing from more of them now than we were. That is all.
    Regarding Wallace: I find myself in an awkward position because he is involved in a project for my employer. On one hand I respect his intelligence and his steadfast, dogged pursuit of quality results. On the other hand, I sometimes feel like he writes as if he were educated in prison.

  6. But prescriptivists are useful… They reinject the rules in a forceful way
    My point is that they would be infinitely more useful if they actually knew the rules (as opposed to the crap they pick up behind the barn).
    Regarding the Sixties: Right on!
    And as for DFW: I too respect his intelligence and like some of his writing; I just wish 1) he knew what he was talking about and 2) he didn’t come on like the Smarmy All-Knowing One.

  7. Prescriptivism (at its sanest) simply tries to use a descriptivist account of a prestige dialect as a normative standard.
    Problems arises when prescriptivists mistakenly assume their prejudices are an adequate substitute for accurate description, and when they assume that the prestige of the prestige dialect is an entirely natural and politically unmediated result of its intrinsic superiority. (It is of course to laugh, but prescriptivists are often not very bright.)
    More societies than literate ones have a conservative prestige register or dialect, and it is not to McWhorter’s credit that he conflates the two, (unless he’s writing down to the Great Unwashed, I s’pose). It is in the nature of things that changes within the prestige dialect come from “below”, since after all conservatism is what it does, but the levelling of distinctions of social rank in western societies that perhaps peaked in the ’60′s isn’t going to be undone by trying to make kids today talk proper (which they don’t; and their music if you can call it music, mumble mumble.)
    On the other hand, the formal prestige registers are sometimes (sociopolitically) appropriate, and not teaching them in schools can disadvantage those whose native dialects are far from the prestige one, and may not easily acquire it without exposure and instruction.
    My solution (which is mine) would be to explicitly teach the highbrow forms (the ones that actually matter, based on a careful descriptive account of prestige dialect utterances culled from and tested against fancy-pants newspapers or whatever) but to make it clear that thuswisely expressing oneself is a tool of assimilation to the establishment. (I.e., selling out to The Man, but if you want to grow up to be a lawyer or whatever you gotta have what The Man wants to buy.) Offering persons an opt-in is the opposite of discriminatory, for sure.
    In short: prestige dialects are not inherently superior in any sense other than having prestige, but that is after all not a small thing to have.
    (This is a sketch of part of my thought I call “Rightist policies for leftist reasons.”)

  8. Yeah, what he said. (Must be nice to be fully awake and all that kind of thing.)

  9. Oh, what a shame I missed that – I have Garner’s Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage within reach here.

  10. Btw, do you Americans never use the word ‘linguist’ in two meanings – one is someone who speaks one or more foreign languages, the other is a student of linguistics or someone who has studied linguistics. I only ever meet the second meaning here.

  11. That’s what I call a loaded question! Yes, Americans (and I believe other English speakers) often use the word in the first sense… but American (and I presume other) linguists in the specialized sense deprecate the use and try to get people to say “polyglot” or “multilingual” or “gee, you speak a lot of languages” instead, because it’s hard enough explaining what linguistics is without having to explain over and over and over that a linguist isn’t (just) somebody who speaks other languages.

  12. Just thinking about prescriptive grammar again. To me prescriptive grammar is hard to disengage from good writing style, and to a degree, spelling is like that too. For example, if my little niece writes to me “com to ar hous todai” or if someone says “We ain’t got no dog” the supposedly primary function of communication is unimpaired, but the self-presentation is poor or at least un-educated, childish, and non-elite.
    And I think that I edit all three in the same part of my brain, which is a different part than where I think up what I want to say. So I’ll hear myself say something (or see something I’ve written) and think, “Something’s wrong there.” It might be a misspelling, or an error of grammar, or the use of a non-prescribed form, or just a clumsy sentence, but my “Something’s wrong there” is initially the same.
    I’m snooty enough that I don’t never use the ain’t-got-none country dialect I heard growing up except on purpose. A linguist — by any standard –who grew up near me claimed that he visited home once for two weeks and never heard the word “doesn’t” used once.

  13. language hat: Isn’t that a bit prescriptivist of you?
    Btw I only ask because I find it confusing. If the disapproved meaning had died, I wouldn’t.

  14. Well, of course it’s a bit precriptivist of me. As Jim (of UJG) said, “Within every soi disant descriptivist is a prescriptivist dying to drop all the pretense and nonsense and correct somebody.” But surely every specialist is irritated when people use specialist terms in vague, sloppy, confusing ways.

  15. What the hell is a ‘lax society’?
    Would they also concede, “A society is generally as rigid as its language”? This is more the impression I get from the site. Every article I’ve seen there is embarrassing to read.

  16. Online tomorrow, Nov. 23, the November issue of The Vocabula Review:
    Ain’t We Got Fun? — Steven G. Kellman
    Marginalized — Joseph Epstein
    Ollie, Ollie, -Ologist — Michael J. Sheehan
    The Age of Exploration — Kerr Houston
    The Greatest Dictionary — Richard Lederer
    Literary Review: Hamlet in the Closet — John Kilgore
    The Elder Statesman: My Life as an Owl, Part Dos — Clark Elder Morrow
    The Critical Reader: Two Worrisome Thoughts — Mark Halpern
    The Last Word: From Down-Home to Decadence — Christopher Orlet
    Grumbling About Grammar
    Elegant English
    On Dimwitticisms
    Clues to Concise Writing
    Scarcely Used Words
    Oddments and Miscellanea
    On the Bookshelf

  17. I sometimes feel like he writes as if he were educated in prison.
    Has DFW been dead long enough now that we can laugh at him this way again? Because I certainly guffawed when reading that one. How true it is.
    First time LH calls himself a linguist, after explicitly denying it the year before. “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.” (Comma splice.)

  18. Well, by that thoroughly self-serving definition, which is not the one I normally use.

  19. Even by a far tighter definition, you are a linguist: you have professional linguistic training, even if you don’t make a living at it. You are way closer to Marie-Lucie or Etienne than you are to me or David M. or any of other amateur (but also real) linguists here.

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