Grammar pedantry: we do what we must because we can.
Grammar ain't your enemy.
As I slouch towards age (if not maturity) I have been reevaluating those truisms with which I judge the world. For many, many years I declined to take real positions on existential matters — like faith, for example. "If you don't want to believe in god," I said, "or if you do, that's your choice. Me, I'm not sure yet."

Recently my position has hardened, but this is a topic best covered by another post — or, to keep peace, perhaps "never." Today we have a different topic — one that I have covered before, now and again — which is the English language.

My father is a linguist, and when I entered university it was with the intention of becoming a linguist. As it turns out, I fell in love with anthropology and history instead, and that's where I wound up settling. Remember this; there will be a quiz on it later.

I studied linguistics for long enough, however, to have had impressed upon me the two different ways of thinking about grammar. I have explained this before: there is the prescriptivist component of grammar, in which you instruct people on how to put together their sentences, and then there is the descriptivist component, in which you don't tell them a blessed thing and merely write up how they actually communicate.

Prescriptivism, conjuring as it does images of a schoolmarm reminding us that yes we can use the restroom but it is better to ask if we may, is unpopular these days, and there are of course few prescriptivist academics, because most journals have more important things to do than to tell other people how to speak. But now we cross a bridge into more troubled waters.

It has become, if not popular, than at least de rigueur for the intelligentsia to oppose grammatical pedantry — I know this, because I used to be quite invested in such opposition myself. These people are transcendent; unbound by the stodgy fluff of strict linguistic correctness, they soar freely, rearranging language at their will to create beautiful and amazing new constructs never before seen by mortal men. These iconoclasts have no use for your rejection of dangling participles or your abhorrence of the word "irregardless" or "refudiate."

They're better than that.

Language, they say, is ever-changing, and we would do well to change with it, lest we paint ourselves into a corner of irrelevancy. Indeed, they will tell you that there is no wrong or right way of speaking English. The only thing that matters, they say, is raw communication. So long as this is at least mostly satisfied, everything is peachy. But is this true?

Well. Sort of.

Confusing "its" and "it's," for example, rarely hampers our ability to understand what is being said. Certainly, nobody is actually flummoxed by a sign reading "15 items or less," as it's pretty much unambiguous. But the central conceit of the hardcore anti-prescriptivists is that the evolution of the English language does not lead to a loss of clarity or meaning, and this is incorrect.

I flew to London for a couple of days earlier this week, and as we descended into Heathrow the captain informed us that we would be landing "momentarily." This is unlikely. Helicopters delivering troops whilst under heavy fire may land momentarily; thrown rubber balls land momentarily. Since I knew we were not practicing touch-and-go maneuvers, it seemed obvious enough that the captain meant that we would be landing "soon," instead. But what if I say, "Mr. Bond, I will be turning on the Pain Ray momentarily." Will our hero be in for a brief second of pain, followed by respite? Or am I implying that, in a second or two, he will suffer unimaginable agonies for some unspecified length of time? Addressing this requires circumlocution ("Mr. Bond, I will be turning on the Pain Ray momentarily. Soon, you will experience the fire of a thousand suns, and it will last until your inevitable death. Ha ha ha") of the expository sort that always gets us supervillains killed.

Or, for example, some days ago I was in a chatroom and described some behavior as a wont of mine. As a creature of routine, I have many wonts — which is to say, those things that I do habitually. There arose some confusion between the word wont and the unrelated homonym want, with one person professing that the latter could be perfectly acceptably used in a similar construction to the former. I was thinking about it later, and realized that this is incorrect. "As was her wont, the novelist wrote the end of her manuscript clutching a bottle of Jack Daniels and growling incoherently at the walls" describes a habitual action (alternatively: "deadlines wonted the novelist to approach the end of her manuscripts with a bottle of Jack Daniels"). As a noun, "want" refers to an absence of something ("for want of a nail, the shoe was lost") or more rarely to a desire ("wants and needs"). The construction "as is her want" is a typo and conflating the two words raises the probability of misinterpretation.

Similarly, for reasons that are somewhat lost to me, "bemused" has acquired a secondary meaning that seems to imply mild amusement. This introduces a critical ambiguity. "The error code on the nuclear containment vessel bemused the reactor chief." Is everything safe, or should we be running for the hills? And when we say "what does the code mean?" and she says "presently, a loss of containment," does she mean that the loss of containment is imminent, or is she treating "presently" as a synonym for "currently"? Am I being turned into the Incredible Hulk at that moment, or do I have to wait a little bit?

My point, anyway, is that at the same that English has gained new words to describe new phenomena it has absolutely lost clarity in other regards, and the notion that it all comes out in the wash is bunk. English lost its second-person plural, for example; we now lack an unambiguous way to denote it, and nothing else has arisen to reduce this confusion. Probably it is simply not that important — but to bastardize CS Lewis: it is hard to have patience with people who say "there is no grammar" or "grammar doesn't matter." There is an English grammar, and whatever is matters.

And I mention these anecdotes and examples because such mistakes (incidentally the politically correct term is to describe such instances as "non-standard" usage, not "mistaken" usage) are relatively common. There's a certain vaguely gonzo quality to English these days, with the Sarah Palins of the world cheerily embracing their neologistical tendencies. And, really, I don't have a problem with that. I don't think that English is going to the dogs, per se — certainly it has changed a great deal over time, as languages have a way of doing. No, the worrying trend I see is different.

The problem is the perverse assumption that there is something misguided or inappropriate about knowing the difference between "affect" and "effect" — that people who make a point of using English aggressively and well are fuddy-duddies, and that people who use "reticent" when they mean "hesitant" are somehow closer embracing the praxis of English, focusing on what "really matters" (notionally, 'communication') instead of being ignorant. It is not worth correcting the signs at supermarket express checkout counters, no — but you should aspire to a higher standard of English and take pleasure in this process.

As it happens, I speak a relatively colloquial brand of English myself. I swear a lot, and I use words like "hella" and "proper" as intensifiers. Sometimes I capitalize certain words to give them emphasis, if they are Very Important, even if they wouldn't normally be capitalized. I start sentences with conjunctions. Sometimes I fill paragraphs with sentences that ramble on lengthily. Other times, mere fragments. But I know why I do these things, because I read and write voraciously. They are selected with a calculating purpose.

These days, though, that's a dangerous thing to admit. Most people are aware when they are ignorant, and everyone is ignorant of something. This makes us feel uncomfortable. So there is nothing quite so tasty and seductive as vindication, and somebody telling us that it's okay to be ignorant — or indeed, that our ignorance is not born of anything negative (such as our own effort or lack thereof) but is rather the child of pragmatism. After all, we wouldn't want to be elitist, would we? This is one reason why we love hearing that Einstein failed math in school (of course he did not): it's not that we didn't work hard enough to master calculus, it's like, the system, man. So what if it says I don't understand it? They said that about Einstein and he was, like, the smartest guy ever.

So people enjoy hearing that it's not worthwhile. Many discussions of grammar I see online include a link to Stephen Fry talking about language in which he evinces a distaste for people who would correct the use of a greengrocer's apostrophe. But here's the thing: Stephen Fry gets to do this because he is, where articulation and charming, powerful use of language are concerned, a genius. When he says that there is no right way of speaking English, he means that it is possible to be inventive with the tongue. When Slashdot commentators repost it to say there's no right way of speaking English, they mean that you should leave them alone already just because they don't capitalize or punctuate. Creative use and wrong (non-standard!) use of English are not the same thing.

I think that most people actually understand this, and there is a slight hint of disingenuousness when "grammarians are too uptight!" comes into play; this occurs in the form of what I would call the "that said" construct. "People need to stop being so anal about grammar. English is a constantly changing language! That said, I wish my boss would stop trying to 'align' everything." That said, why do kids have to say "like" all the time? That said, doesn't George W. Bush sound like an idiot when he talks? That said, how come black people can say 'nigger' and I can't? We understand that there are limits; those limits always come safely just past where we happen to be.

Anyway. Nobody stops to consider that Stephen Fry is in a unique position because he is, after a fashion, an expert. At some point, we came to distrust, even dislike experts, and indeed the entire notion of expertise. This is true at virtually every level of discourse. We don't want to listen to climatologists and we pounce on the merest hint of malfeasance in their research. Against all odds an anti-vaccination movement has arisen because we don't think all that fancy "medical school" thing really counts for much. We deride wine aficionados for caring about things like terroir and sneer at hipsters for seeking out new music and experiences.

There's a certain sour grapes air to the whole thing. I caught myself last week saying that I wasn't interested in Battlefield 3 because I didn't feel like getting repeatedly shot in the head by somebody who had "nothing better to do" than to learn the maps and figure out all the "exploits and glitches" (which is what game mechanics are called when they make you dead). But I mean... really? Nobody's getting paid to play Battlefield. They choose to spend their time with that — the same free time I allocate to being an elitist bastard in my blog, or to Internet pornography. And I resent them for this.

"Fuck you for being better than me," I say. Probably I throw an emoticon in there for good measure. "Why would you actually practice something you enjoy? Man, friggin' get a life already." Somebody will say: "yeah, but I just play games to have fun." Of course. But at what point did the expectation emerge that achievement and effort were to be divorced? And at what point did we look at people who are good at something, like wine grapes, grammar, or games, and decide to huffily dismiss this as the consequence of not focusing on things that really mattered?

You know. Taking things too seriously. Caring too much. Being a geek, a nerd, a snob. "Where do you get off, being good at something?" "Look at you, with the nerve to know more than me." These are their own thought-terminating clichés, to borrow Wikipedia's parlance again. And as I said, it extends to all levels; this is the motivation behind the contemptible "Mystery Science Theater 3000 mantra," which when employed outside of sardonic puppetry means to sit down, shut up, and stop thinking. How is that possibly a good thing? When did "stop thinking so much" become an acceptable piece of advice?

It's like an evolved version of the bullying bookish kids face in elementary school, and it has created a dishearteningly "truthy" world. Having been brought up to believe that everyone is entitled to their opinion and that all opinions are equally meritorious, we have set ourselves to the task of expanding what ought to count as an opinion. And I might agree that it's laughable to conflate "well, that may be your way of speaking, but there's no such thing as bad English so you can't tell me I'm wrong" with "well, that may be your way of treating this disease, but there's no such thing as bad medicine" except that people already do this. Try to explain medicine to a devotee of "natural" childrearing or homeopathy. See how far you get.

So it bothers me when knowing how to put words together, and being able to educate people who put them together inappropriately, is seem as a bad thing. As it must bother computer experts who see their expertise dismissed as the product of being a pale, basement-dwelling nerd. As it must bother mathematicians, when people seem to uphold not being a "math person" as a point of pride instead of a failing. As it must bother car mechanics, whose artisanal knowledge is treated as blue-collar work beneath the level of someone so esteemed as a middle manager or a "knowledge worker" and who become mere tools, rather than experts to be respected. As it must bother artists, who endure people scoffing, "that's not art, that's just a pile of random stuff! I could do that" — but somehow never do.

As I said, I went from studying linguistics to studying anthropology. I believe there are two advantages to a liberal arts education. The first is that most liberal arts fields are all about opening portals into understanding. Mathematics and philosophy offer students the promise of unlocking the theories that form the very essence of reality; astronomers and physicists are tempted by a similar siren's call that suggests that the universe is — unbelievably — comprehensible. Literature teaches us how to peer into the human psyche from without; psychology examines it from within. And so on, and so forth — for a certain kind of mind, it is deliriously irresistible.

The second advantage is that it embraces a breadth of knowledge. In theory, if not always in practice, a liberal arts student must be conversant in a number of fields, and if nothing else they should be desirous of such understanding. Indeed it's the liberal arts graduates I know who have the broadest reach of interests. This is a good thing. We use the phrase "jack of all trades, master of none"; the premise of a liberal arts education is that one may indeed aim for mastery in one area, but embrace the potential of knowledge everywhere.

For this we must be constantly open to discovery — in love with always taking that next step, always trying to learn the next new thing. This is, I think, how everyone should be. I don't think everyone should go to college; I don't think everyone should study calculus or the Civil War. I don't think that everyone should read every type of book, play every game, explore every country, engage in every activity, listen to every genre of music, enjoy every type of cuisine, or watch every style of movie. But I think that everyone should understand why these things should be pursued, and to respect those who do enjoy and master them. And above all, never to embrace ignorance. Never to dismiss expertise as the result of wasted effort, nor to tell yourself that you don't care because you have more important things to do. Perhaps so: but if you had all the hours in the universe, you should want to know all things. It is a fundamental limit of our biologies that we cannot, but if we hewed always to fundamental limits of biology we would never have planted a flag on the moon, nor accomplished all that we have.

So, am I saying that you should start writing over signage with angry red ink? No, of course not. But I am saying that anti-prescriptivism should not be used as a crutch. Sometimes you will be wrong, and sometimes it's better to learn from that. Enjoy the ability to broaden your linguistic horizons! Speak in new ways; invent new words — but understand why you are inventing them! See how deliberate, novel usage is different from mistaken usage! Find a typo in this essay and post a comment about how ironic it was, so that we can have a fun discussion about what 'irony' is and is not!

Then, make a new YouTube video because, seriously, that moving-type stuff is pretty overplayed.
KW
12.01.2012 - 7h14

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