The following letter, from Andrew Charig, appeared in yesterday’s New York Times Magazine:
I was very sad to hear of the death of William Safire, who most likely was the foremost expert on the American language.
In “Error-Proof,” Ammon Shea suggests invoking Chaucer and Shakespeare as a defense against criticisms of bad grammar because they used so many obsolete forms that almost any error can be found among their works. But Shakespeare wrote before English was standardized; Chaucer before it was English at all. Both are loved for what they said, not for their use of grammar. Their eloquence in usage should not make their grammar a standard for ours.
With computer communication threatening to corrupt our language beyond intelligibility, it is more important than ever to uphold usage that has precedent and to limit change to what is sensible and useful. Our criteria should be Fowler, Strunk and White, the O.E.D., Webster — not Chaucer.
I too was sad to hear of Safire’s death, but this letter gave me a wry laugh and reminded me that the worst aspects of his punditry are exactly what were appreciated by many of his fans. This letter is so full of nonsense it’s hard to know where to start; since Language Log has covered the “expert” claim, I’ll point out that the idea that Chaucer wrote “before it was English at all” is ridiculous and the desire to “limit change to what is sensible and useful,” however attractive to a certain regimentation-loving cast of mind, is (fortunately) a hopeless one. Also, “the O.E.D.”? Is Mr. Charig under the impression that that magnificent work of lexicography supports his prescriptivist views? He should try actually using it someday, instead of invoking it as an idol.
This seems a logical place to insert a silly quote from David Runciman’s LRB review of Democracy and Knowledge: Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens, by Josiah Ober: “He also describes Athenian democracy, in the hideous modern jargon, as ‘scalable’, meaning that lessons learned on the local level could be generalized across the government system.” The word scalable is “hideous,” apparently, because Runciman did not grow up with it and it is not part of his professional vocabulary, and we all know that professional vocabulary that is not ours is by definition hideous. Seriously, what’s wrong with it? It’s short, reasonably euphonious, and (most importantly) provides a handy way of referring to a complicated idea. Does Runciman want writers to say “capable of being easily expanded or upgraded on demand” (M-W) every time they need to refer to it? What fools these language moralists be!