My Eternal Gripe

Over and over again, good-hearted people join the bandwagon of grammar mavens. Grammar maven is a term coined by William Safire as ’language maven’, as reported in Steven Pinker’s famous book The Language Instinct. A maven, according to Leo Rosten, who spells in ’mavin’, is an expert.

The term is applied by Pinker ironically because these mavins get it all wrong. He takes on Safire and many other pundits and Sunday supplement language experts, self-appointed. Another good Yiddish term is ’kvetch’, which is what these guys do. Moan and groan about the state of the language, and, by extension, the people who speak the language as ’she is spoke’.

What strikes me as sad and stupid is the huge number of language teachers who buy into this self-serving nonsense. At one time after a long discussion on a Listserv, I was told it seemed I wanted to bring non-standard language into the classroom. Stunned, I thought and thought: how could anyone get that out of what I wrote? I reviewed all my posts, had a friend read them….

Finally, it dawned on me. What I had done was not commit a factual error but rather I had violated a ritual. The ritual is this: anytime someone mentions current usage, one must immediately begin a wailing, raising lamentations to the heavens over what surely must be the last days of English. The usage of the young and of the media must be thoroughly lashed and the failure of our schools to “teach good grammar” should be intoned.

Interestingly enough, once this is done, you are free to move on to a more nuanced view, as one writer recently did, to matters like “well, maybe the who/whom distinction could be dropped in casual speech among East L.A. gangstas”.

The number of excellent books written on this topic exceeds my ability to count, but I can give a list of the better known ones. These are popularly written books which do not demand a knowledge of linguistics. Why teachers do not read these I do not know, except that I think it makes them feel superior to think that they hold the keys – to good jobs!

Yes, that is one of the great canards of the grammar mavens, that you will never get through a job interview if you screw up your copular verb. I say canard with its specific meaning in mind, a false and malicious newspaper report, because it is just in newspapers where this sort of nonsense is so frequently spouted. Some columnists go on to write books, Edwin Newman being one of the better known for doing so. John Simon, a truly vicious elitist of the worst sort, William Safire, one of the better informed and more moderate mavens, and, most recently, Lynne Truss, author of Eats, Shoots, and Leaves, a well-intentioned collaborator with one of England’s finest linguists.

The linguist in question is David Crystal, author of The Fight for English. Despite his many books and fame as a linguist, he was driven to write yet another book, a popular book, on grammar, punctuation and spelling issues. What happened was that he had collaborated with Truss on some language issues and felt her to have a good grasp of language. Then she comes out with this “here I stand and I shall not be moved” sort of book. Amazingly, the book became very popular. Suspicious, Crystal did an informal survey of buyers and found that few actually would change their punctuation based on Truss’ book. The idea seemed more to shore up one’s status as a speaker of correct English.

So Crystal used his enormous erudition to boil it all down into an easily read little book that lays out the history of what is called prescriptivism. He carefully delineates what needs to be taught, Standard English, versus the idiocy that fills the Sunday Supplement pages. Not ending a sentence with a preposition? Did you know that people still argue for that? Did you know that long discussions have taken place on Listservs for language teachers? How can this be when no linguist takes this stuff seriously and our teachers are still teaching rubbish about grammar rather than teaching writing?

To the last point, I will say that Crystal discusses that as well, the throwing out the baby with the bath water. In England, they simply stopped teaching grammar in the sixties. Same thing here in the U.S.A., I think. How dumb. But the evidence was clear: students were not learning to write well by being taught to diagram sentences and to underline the predicate. I went to public schools in 5 states in the 40s and 50s and that is what went on in English classrooms.

In England, at least, there is a return, very recently, to teaching grammar, but now it is being done intelligently. Nothing like that is going on in this country as far as I know. In English classes, teachers touch lightly on grammar; in foreign language classes, grammar dominates the syllabus, as in, “When do you get to the subjunctive?”

This is a thread I will continue. I have no idea how long a blog item should be. I’ll look at intelligent responses; the one that simply said “crap” to my piece on Jean Aitchison’s book is not intelligent. In responses, I would look for something well thought out, not a stupid, knee-jerk reaction; evidence; personal anecdotes only to the extent that they make a point and don’t just reinforce a prejudice or point of ignorance.

While I myself am no expert, I quote experts and spend a good deal of time checking out my facts. I don’t ask anyone to accept blindly a sort of faith-based linguistics but I do ask that if you counter an expert, you do it with facts, not some silly “it sounds bad” judgment. This is my blog, so I do not feel contrained to suffer fools gladly. On the other hand, anyone who is willing to ask questions and read the answers, not necessarily agreeing with them, is welcome to comment.

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