Sunday, June 19, 2005

Is that a mote in your eye, or are you just glad to see me?

OK, we wouldn’t all be gathered ’round this little electric campfire if we didn’t think whingeing about language was fun, right? A downside, as some of you might have noticed already, is that those who would complain about language should do it really, really carefully, lest they be held up as examples for the rest of us.

Hence today’s food for thought, a column from one of the two leading local daily papers. The problem with it is not necessarily that it’s prescriptivist. We all have a little prescriptivist in us (some of us have a lot). Rather, it’s the array of side dishes – grammatical glitches, inability to distinguish fundamentals, dialect chauvinism, BoCoMo ethnocentrism, hyperformal usage and annoying J-school-isms – served up along with the implausible, and essentially untenable, thesis.
[Footnote: Should you run across any mistakes in this screed, see Rule I. Hey, we all do what we can]

Let's start with a selection from the last paragraph:
Whew. I can get worked up about the misuse of the English language and how we’ve nearly destroyed it, but I think I’ll stop before one of my readers who is more anal than I points out the errors of my ways.

Notice the subtle hint of argument ad hominem here: people who point out errors are "anal," and there's a scale of less-to-more "anal" that runs alongside less-to-more persnickety in grammar/usage/whatever. (We're going to come back in a bit to whether it's possible to "destroy" a language short of killing everybody who speaks it, but the short answer is "no.") The writer is undertaking a preemptive strike against people who might suggest, for example, that if you're going to mention the number of years you've taught "word usage," you not do so in a sentence kicked off by a dangling participle:

But having taught word usage for nearly two decades, her pet peeve did strike a nerve.

"Dangler" is shorthand for a couple of misplaced-modifier sins, but this is the classic one: The introductory participial phrase modifies the grammatical subject of the sentence, and that's "peeve." What taught usage, in other words, is not the author, but the questioner's peeve. (The Missouri Group would have you believe that a postposed participial phrase can't modify the subject, but a long-established body of good English says otherwise [verse 39 here is one of many examples]. The issue is trickier when a predicative participle could modify a main-clause subject, a subordinate subject or an object, but we're getting to one of those.)

That one's a matter of "grammar." Compare it with these:

As parents, we allow our toddlers, who are just learning to form words, a wide berth when it comes to syntax. As a young mother, when my first born called a cricket a “hopgrasser,” I just smiled and let it pass. Another son got away saying pacific when he meant specific. But by the time they’re 5, it’s time to gently correct the child and insert the proper word.
“We taked the movie back to the store,” is replaced with “No honey we took the movie back to the store.”

Where to start? Well, word recombining, consonant cluster reduction and the like have little if anything to do with "syntax." "Pacific" for "specific" doesn't seem a lot different from, say, "asterick" for "asterisk," which often goes uncorrected in the speech of adults (as it should; adults who go around correcting other adults' pronounciation give honest pedants a bad name).

As for "we taked the movie back to the store," it's a parlor trick to point out how much syntax the notional 5-year-old has already put into this sentence: He has subject, verb and object in order. He knows where tense goes and how to inflect and regularize it. (The author doesn't say, but he's probably even figured out the rule for when to devoice the final consonant: /tekt/ vs. /tekd/*). What he hasn't done is stagger into the thicket of English irregular verbs, and if you get too bothered by those, well ... maybe the little darling has been paying attention too closely during the Eucharist. Sometimes it happens.

(While we're here, "honey," as a noun of direct address, needs to be set off by commas. That's how standard American English distinguishes "Let's eat, Buffy" from "Let's eat Buffy" -- as the hon. Friar Fuhlhage puts it, the difference between dinner party and Donner Party.)

Again, "taked" and "took" (or, more practically, "dived" vs. "dove") isn't an issue of grammar or syntax, or how words go together to make sentences and their friends. This one is: I can barely tolerate my 13-year-old granddaughter telling me about going to the mall with a friend using the words “like” and “go.” What's the object of "tolerate": the hapless granddaughter or her speech habits? Grammar has a well-established signal for that: If you want the object to be the gerund "telling," make "granddaughter" possessive (I can barely tolerate my 13-year-old granddaughter's telling me about going to the mall...). Otherwise, "telling" is a participle that adds a little more information about the poor adolescent Grandmother can barely tolerate. And while we're here, pace King James and his crack rewrite crew in the examples above, who's "using the words 'like' and 'go'" -- the friend, the granddaughter or the original subject?

It's often hard to tell exactly what the writer is exercised about: grammar, speech habits or usage. Using improper verb tenses is problematic nationwide is a usage issue. The writer apparently thinks improper verb tense is a problem, but choosing a glitzier word -- "problematic" -- that means something a shade different** muddies the point. Dangling participles, confusion of gerunds with participles and the like are grammar issues. Picking on people's speech -- especially when, like, you know, they've just been near-missed by a freakin' airplane ("When I seen the plane coming at me I ducked") -- is pretty uncharitable. If you're prone to any of your particular region's interesting dialect habits, it's also a good way to set yourself up for a fall.

That's the core problem with being a dialect snob. Nobody's going to misunderstand "We was going to the store." It's nonstandard ("substandard" if you want, "wrong" if you must), but unlike a misplaced modifier or a screwed-up noun of address, there's nothing unclear about its meaning. And for heaven's sake, it's speech. If you can't tell the difference between speech and writing, you're in more trouble than a copyediting blog can fix. It doesn't matter how often you use "however" when you mean "but."

The idea that the world revolves around Boone County is charming, but it illustrates the perils of drawing conclusions from a convenience sample. No, final "at" is not exclusively a Midwesternism; it's a staple of jokes in the "redneck at Harvard" category, for one. And this:

There is a verb phrase I think is used in only Boone County and one that drives me to distraction. I have had people say to me, “Come smell of the soup.” Can’t I just smell the soup? Why do I have to smell OF it?

Somebody needs to get out more. The construction isn't used "in only Boone County" (which strikes me as a hypercorrect version of "only in Boone County"). I have a friend from the wilds of North Carolina who has a bunch of interesting prepositional uses, including "feel of" ("He felt of my thigh, and I smacked him"). But the issue isn't Boone County v. Ashe County, it's that darned trail of construction going back to King James again:

He took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of it.

He means "all y'all drink from it," not "drink all of it." And no, the Mount of Olives is not in Boone County. I checked.

So, to summarize: Speech isn't writing. Usage isn't syntax. Complaining about grammar isn't the same thing as understanding it. Every dialect is its own glass house. Read a lot. English is no danger of being "destroyed" (it got run over by French 900 years ago and survived, 5-year-olds can apparently cop to its syntax pretty fast, and it's about to take over the world). People who complain about the coming death of English aren't usually talking about language; they're talking about something else (on the order of "And your music, it's just noise").

One more thing:

Because I’m on a roll, the word is Realtor not real-it-tor.

I don't claim to be on a roll, but the word is (well, the words are) "real estate agent." "Realtor" was invented by real estate agents to make themselves sound cooler. And people who don't want their invented words to undergo cluster reduction shouldn't invent words with difficult consonant clusters.

* Sorry, real phonetic alphabet unavailable.
** Look it up, dammit.

7 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Terrific. Thank you for this.

But I was promised arts. Isn't this more science than art?

Rachel

9:34 PM, June 23, 2005  
Blogger fev said...

If it was science, Arsenal wouldn't be an "it" over here and a "they" in Britain, would it (they)?

9:44 PM, June 23, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmmm. I think I may now be in love with you.

10:36 PM, June 23, 2005  
Blogger language said...

I too was very taken with this rant; in fact, I think I'll post about it. But you're suspiciously fond of the word "whinge" for an alleged Americano...

--language hat

4:03 PM, August 28, 2005  
Blogger fev said...

Y'all make Hat welcome. If you aren't checking languagehat.com regularly, you should be.

Native of DC (the Base Realignment people have agreed to decommission the site, as it turns out), Tar Heel by duration of residence, last home of record &c. Enduring affection for both "whinge" and Wells' Bombardier -- both eminently functional, you've got to admit.

11:03 PM, August 28, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Realtor' was invented by real estate agents to make themselves sound cooler."

No it wasn't it. It was created as a registered trademark to distinguish members of a particular trade association from non-members. It isn't cooler or less cool than any other trademark.

10:55 PM, September 02, 2005  
Blogger fev said...

Well, erm, I'm not sure those categories ("meant to sound cool" and "distinguishes in-group from out-group") are mutually exclusive. And I don't think the original suggests that 'Realtor' sounds cooler or less cool than other trademarks, tho I would contend we can infer intent-to-sound-cool from the trademark's existence. But I've been wrong before.

12:00 AM, September 03, 2005  

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