Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Journalism, science, grammar

An interesting but annoying column in the NYT's Style section on Sunday sheds some light on the odd little Twilight Zone where journalists decide how to talk about the empirical world (thanks to Pam for the steer-in, but: Pam, what is this "trouble" business?). One Bob Morris, who apparently writes something weekly called "The Age of Dissonance," has found him a Trend, and it's Young People Taking Up For Grammar. In a way, he's actually talking about the great journalism-and-science question, but it's almost Halloween, so let's let him dig his own ghastly hole:

Not long ago, an elderly friend and grammar stickler stopped me midsentence. I had just said, “They gave it to him and I,” when it should have been “him and me.”

“You have to keep in mind the object of the preposition,” she gently told me.

I felt ashamed, but also grateful to be corrected.

“And now you won’t embarrass yourself in front of someone else,” she said. (Don't touch that dial, Elderly Friend! He's fixin' to, whether he gets his cases confused or not!)

She isn’t the only one wagging a finger or a pencil these days. Bring up the topic of grammar at any party and you’re likely to be hit with a tirade. (Which is your first signal of how much original thinking and footwork went into this column.)

But then, this is a time when e-mail messages, hip-hop slang, and a “decider” president who said that “childrens do learn” are chipping away at good grammar.

OK, stop the tape. By this point, Bob has covered the spectrum of Meedja Bias. He's managed to capture both the barely veiled racism of the knuckle-dragging right ("hip-hop slang" is coming right at your white girls grammar!) and the twee self-righteousness of the Salon Set left. As in, does the Times no longer stock dictionaries, or does it just not keep the sort that would tell you that "decider" has been hanging around as an English noun for four centuries now, or do Style columnists simply not have to have the faintest freaking idea what they're talking about? Or how English forms nouns from verbs? Like, if you had to call a columnist a really, really bad name and your dialect didn't yet have a noun for, like, when this dude and this goat ... fine, you get the idea.

But that's not the point. This is the point:
“Unfortunately, using poor grammar comes off as less pretentious,” said Sharon Nichols, a 22-year-old law student. “Everything is just so calculated in politics.”

Ms. Nichols is one of many young people throwing off her generation’s reputation for slovenly language, and taking up the gauntlet for good grammar.

Hold that thought. No, not the one about the comma before the coordinating conjunction in a compound of two, which for future reference we'll call the "ham, and eggs" comma. The one about the inevitable next sentence:

Last year, after seeing a sign on a restaurant window that said “Applications Excepted,” she started a grammar vigilante group on Facebook, the social networking site, and called it “I Judge You When You Use Poor Grammar.”

That's why we call it "shoe-leather reporting," kids. When you read a column that appears to result from one possibly apocryphal encounter with an elderly acquaintance, one hypothetical party and one afternoon on Facebook, you take off a shoe and hit yourself on the head until shards of leather form a pile at your desk.

Rather than looking for all the inanities in of this column (what kind of world would we have if everyone let grammar continue its drunken, downhill slide?), let's try to put them into some sort of context. Bob's making a lot of statements about how the world is. Grammar's going downhill. It's worse than it was. It's threatened by technology, colored people contemporary dialect, Republicans and wh0 knows what-all. But young people are standing up! They're taking up our quarrel with the foe! All of which are things we can isolate and measure and discuss, should we be interested. But we don't seem to be. We'd rather proclaim.

Here's an item for contrast: Mark Liberman over to the Log, checking in at last on the "workplace cussing is good for you!" study. And he has a good trick that we might ought to consider adopting on the desk: Read the methods section and see what the study actually did:

... The data collection for this study was conducted while the second author was employed in a temporary position in a mail-order warehouse.

Mark's translation into the active voice: In other words, Jenkins had a part-time job, and made some observations about cussing in that context.

Yep. And is there a lesson for the people who wrote the stories, or slapped them on the front, or had to write heds for them?

The ironic thing is that pretty much all the reporters writing stories about this research, and most of the people reading those stories, have had at least this wide a range of experience of cussing in the workplace, and probably almost as much experience of swapping stories about cussing among different groups.

Thus they have roughly as much empirical basis as Baruch and Jenkins for evaluating hypotheses about how workplace swearing works and what its positive and negative impacts might be. But because this is a "study" presenting the results of "research", the journalists and their readers are all solemnly considering it as testimony of a qualitatively different character from their own life experience.

So how do we bring this all together? Maybe when we write about stuff in the observable world, we should assume that people are going to ask us how we know it. And we could assign different values to different sorts of claims about truth. And people who had more evidence to support what they said would get better play, and people who were just blowing smoke would be consigned to the far outer circles of hell. Or something.

Think it'll work? Or do "Grammar! You Kids Are Ruining It!" and "Cussing! It's Better For You Than You Thought!" just have so much appeal that we'll never stop them?

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Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

But this one's "Grammar: the Good Kids Are Fixing It!"

That's so sweet...

5:33 AM, October 24, 2007  
Blogger Old Word Wolf said...

Lots of folks who really shouldn't are taking up the cause: this is posted over in the economics department:
[url]http://mjperry.blogspot.com/2007/10/more-grammar-nitpicking-who-vs-that.html [\url]

10:03 AM, October 24, 2007  
Anonymous G. Gaia said...

Are someone saying kids like I don't understand well grammar?

I wish someone on the desk would have killed this. Oh, and I really love the evidence used to support the claims for "many" young people taking up the cause: "Wow, look, the grammatical revolution must be beginning - some college student started a Facebook group."

Good post.

11:48 AM, October 24, 2007  
Blogger Pam said...

Hey, Fev! It was a backhanded compliment!

3:06 PM, October 24, 2007  
Blogger alienvoord said...

"Facebook helps prevent grammar apocalypse"

12:19 PM, October 26, 2007  
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