The Grammar Wizard

A poster posted:

“I remember being taught, and therefore have always taught my students, that

when you modify a body part, you need the definite article before it:

(Tengo pelo. vs Tengo el pelo rubio.) Our new textbook, Avancemos by

McDougall Littell, does not consistently put in the article. I’m wondering

if there has been a rule change or if I’m just remembering wrong. Or

perhaps the book has some errors.”

“…there has been a rule change”???

Hmmm. Who would be the “rule-changer”? Could that possibly be George Bush? He is not only the Decider but he also “speaks fluent Spanish”. Right?

So here we have the appearance of the Grammar Wizard, the Rule Dispenser, the Great Poobah, the Authority.

What this poster actually had in mind is hard to tell…. so often on these Lists when you quote someone you get back a whiny “that’s not what I meant” as if they could say, “All teachers are dumb” and then say, “that’s not what I meant… I meant they are all wonderful.”

So I have learned not to try to hold people responsible for what they write. That’s why I take these things to the blog where, apparently, quite a number of people read them I JUST WISH THEY WOULD COMMENT!!!

What I picture is this: the poster has an image of a bearded, Victorian-looking gentleman holding a pipe, with a tome in his lap, pontificating about the language. He tells you what the rules are. He dispenses them. You don’t know where they come from – or, perhaps as in days of yore you have to assume they come from God – but you know they are there to guide and comfort you.

And therein lies what I believe to be the Great Divide – between Descriptivists and Prescriptivists. Descriptivists know perfectly well that we have to have a Standard Language and that the Standard must be taught, although we may disagree on how it is to be taught. Extreme Descriptivists do exist, although I don’t hear from them and haven’t read any.

Extreme Prescriptivists do exist and we hear from them often. They are fairly rare as most people will admit to a lot of fuzziness in language. However, the extreme p.’s blare their opinions and judgments from op-ed columns and letters to the editor and in books and magazine articles. I call them “Sunday Supplement” because they have the scholarly appurtenances of a Sunday Supplement article. Yet we are to take them seriously because they have the tone and tenor of Authority, i.e. the Authority has set himself up as the Authority. Many people accept this readily.

Real authorities, i.e. experts on the language having been vested with the authority by society, are much less dogmatic in their pronouncements; they make pronouncements b/c we want them. I look up words all the time, usually for their spelling, sometimes for their grammatical form e.g. the recent discussion of “consists in” vs “consists of” was interesting to me b/c I don’t think I was ever aware of that distinction. So I would like a guide. The Royal Academies and Academy of Sciences issue edicts, but they are carefull considered with a lot of hedging – BECAUSE they are experts and know better than to be dogmatic.

Having a guide doesn’t mean you have to follow it. As an example, the SE past tense of ’sneak’ is ’sneaked’ but I say ’snuck’. No problem. Being well educated in grammar, I just know that in formal writing I will write ’sneaked’. Most Americans use ’dove’ as the past tense of ’dive’ but SE has ’dived’. No biggie. You can say whatever. Few of us have any occasion to write a formal letter. I wrote a letter to a school district superintendent recently (I ALWAYS have to look up ’superintendant/-dent’) and I know her and know that if I wrote ’dove’ or ’snuck’ she probably wouldn’t notice.

The sad truth is, there is no Great Authority who can tell us what is correct and what is not. Language is too complex for that. One might go so far as to say that life is the same way… too complex for a Great Authority to tell us what to do. But that’s drifting dangerously……..

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