Linguistics can help here; it provides a language for talking about language a "meta-language," in the trade , which is much more precise than the mysterious and dimly remembered classifications of traditional grammar. Terms like "predicate nominative" may have a limited applicability to Latin, but they were not very useful for talking about English even in the days when educated speakers were presumed to have some familiarity with the classical languages.
But we should no more ask linguistic scientists to tell us what sounds best than we should ask economists to tell us which distribution of property will be fairest; those matters are for us to decide. The linguists are right in their second point, as well, that traditional linguistic values have long been mixed up with class prejudice. The eighteenth-century grammarians were hardly defenders of the system of hereditary privilege, but they did accept the speech of the upper middle class as a basis for the literary language.
Until the twentieth century, in fact, grammarians rarely criticized the speech of the working classes; they simply assumed that their readers knew better than to talk like that. Chesterton said, "A man does not walk down the street giving a haughty twirl to his moustaches at the thought of his superiority to some variety of deep- fishes. It was not until the twentieth century that the hegemony of middle-class speech was challenged, as a result of mass education and of the collapse of the homogeneous social elite--the "Protestant establishment," as E.
Digby Baltzell has called it--that had dominated mores and culture until World War I. Minority and working-class children must, as a purely practical first measure, learn the speech habits that happen to have been adopted by the middle class. What linguists have not understood, however, is that standard English and good English are different things.
It is still possible to distinguish in principle between the crass hypocrisy that leads us to try to get ghetto children to talk like the children of stockbrokers and the higher and more arduous calling that leads us to try to get the children of stockbrokers to write like James Baldwin. But it is only so long as we bear that distinction in mind--so long as attacks on the "slovenliness" of ghetto English still raise our hackles--that we are entitled to try to resuscitate the enterprise of grammar with a clear conscience.
W E can revive grammatical values only if we can make them consistent with our other social values, so that we can argue from moral principles that are as unexceptionable and familiar to us as the etiquette for addressing servants was to Fowler's original readers. There is no point in my trying to justify a usage to my students by an appeal to some musty, Arnoldian ideal of culture.
They will listen politely and forget the whole matter before they log onto the computer to write their next term papers. They have nothing to be nostalgic about, and I can't make a good case for any sort of attention to grammar unless I am willing to accept the universe that they quite contentedly inhabit. In the first place, we have to recognize that literature has lost the kind of public importance that it had in Johnson's or Arnold's day.
Although more people than ever are functionally literate, few are literate in the high sense of the word, and those who are can't expect other people to be. There is an old joke about the days when the British universities were thoroughly corrupt, and a dissolute young aristocrat could pass his exams by answering the question "Now then, Lord Arthur, who dragged whom around the walls of what?
It is not that people don't read novels and such. They do, probably more than ever, but only for the pleasure of it. There is no canon--no books that everyone expects everybody to have read, or to be able to pretend to have read--that can serve as a common reference point in discussions of social values. The effects of all this on the way we think about and use the language are by now irreversible. Take the way we talk about character. People who used to be vain, wrathful, self-reliant, sullen, or driven are now narcissistic, hostile, secure, passive-aggressive, or obsessive more or less.
To know what the old words meant, we went to Jane Austen and Thackeray; to understand the new ones, we take psychology courses. The extent to which the new order has become established was brought home to me by a sentence in a recent article in Commentary on delinquency. The author ridiculed the jargon with which social workers describe delinquents, then concluded: "In short, he is what the layman would call a sociopath.
The decline of literature has already been acknowledged implicitly in the general case made for good usage.
The Decline of Grammar
Men like Johnson and Arnold hoped that the refinement of English would lead to the perfection of literature and culture, but modern thinkers are more likely to sound a political or civic theme. The most widely cited of all twentieth-century essays on the language is Orwell's Politics and the English Language , the burden of which is that sloppy language makes for sloppy thinking and leads to totalitarianism: "If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy.
Political language--and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists--is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. When English was thought of as the medium through which we arrived at a common set of cultural values, the archetype of English prose was the critical essay. Today, English is above all the medium for our political discussions, and we look to writing about political and social issues for our models of prose style.
Yet in the public schools instruction in composition is still considered chiefly the business of English teachers, who continue to make the writing of "book reports" the centerpiece of their program. Professors of philosophy or history may complain about the state of student writing, but most would not dream of taking a hand in remedying the problem. The declining importance of literature is tied as well to the changing role of written language as a medium of public information. When the eighteenth-century grammarians insisted that writing, not speech, must be the model for good usage, they were on solidly democratic ground, for a spoken model could be familiar only to a small group of people connected by personal ties and could be broadcast only inefficiently, through plays and sermons.
Written models could reach a much larger public. But now, thanks to radio and television, the spoken language has once again become the medium of the broadest public discussion, especially as regards the political and civic aspects of our lives. If we hew to the same democratic principles that led the eighteenth-century grammarians to insist upon the primacy of writing, we will accord more importance to the spoken language.
Writing is not about to wither away, to be sure. The doomsayers who see in television the death of literacy sound very much like the nineteenth-century critics who thought that photography would be the end of painting. But television and radio are now the principal means for disseminating political information to a large public. Consequently, it is increasingly important for people to know how to listen critically and how to evaluate spoken arguments.
Yet here again, the public-school curriculum and grammar books are largely unchanged. The typical state of-the-language essay begins by citing a misuse of disinterested and then jumps to an example of bureaucratic jargon or of faulty verb agreement, as if each error consigned the writer to the same circle of hell. But the eighteenth-century grammarians were careful to distinguish among several different types of linguistic vices and, by implication, of linguistic virtues.
In particular, they set off barbarisms , expressions that could not legitimately be used in serious writing; solecisms , which were offenses against their ideas of logic; and improprieties , or mistakes in diction. Barbarisms seem at first to have been a diffuse class, which included the use in polite discourse of foreign expressions, of archaisms, of "low cant" and "provincial idioms," and of the newly coined jargon of philosophers and theologians, a category later expanded to include the language of the sciences, both real and self-styled.
What all barbarisms ostensibly had in common was that they offended against the idea that good usage must be "reputable, national, and present," as the great eighteenth-century rhetorician George Campbell put it. But some words that fail to meet these criteria have always escaped the epithet. It is only in our discourse about certain topics that we have objected to the importation of words from communities outside the general literate public.
Take French expressions, until recently a matter of great concern. There are certain cultural categories that we insist on defining for ourselves, but when it comes to the arts of cooking, dance, and love, we readily defer to the authority of the French. The barbarisms that concern modern critics are quite different from those that bothered Campbell or Fowler.
No one now troubles over the use of archaisms like peradventure and anon , for the language is scarcely threatened by an unwholesome excess of gentility, as it was in the nineteenth century. And the use of an unassimilated French word is at worst regarded as an annoying affectation, in part because French culture is not as important a model as it once was, and in part because the practice is no longer intimidating--not only do people not know French but they are not even ashamed of not knowing French.
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One type of barbarism that does rile modern critics is borrowings from technical usage--one aspect of the tendency to refashion the language on the model of scientific discourse. For the most part, the borrowing is natural and inevitable--what else would you call a minicomputer or a quasar? And no one objects to the use of terms from economies like money supply and productivity.
But we raise the roof when bureaucrats and administrators introduce verbs like prioritize, source, implement , and input as if their procedures were as technically intricate and as inaccessible to common understanding as the workings of computers or the money market. And now that we justify linguistic values in political terms, we find no offense so heinous as the use of jargon by politicians, who call invasions "incursions" and tax increases "revenue enhancement"--the sorts of usages that so bothered Orwell.
But while critics are heated in their condemnation of such usages, they are rarely explicit about the reasons for their objections. Why is it all right for a politician to use capital-intensive , once a technical term of economics, but not revenue enhancement? Why have we allowed a term like juvenile delinquent to pass from sociology into general usage while we continue to resist, say, the newer juvenile offender , or person in need of supervision also known as a PINS?
The critics say that the offending barbarisms are pretentious and unnecessary replacements for "perfectly ordinary English words. The change from juvenile delinquent to PINS reflects basic changes in court procedures and a finer set of legal gradations for offenders. The real problem is that these new categories do not seem to correspond to the categories that we would have rationally constructed. The discrepancy between "bureaucratic jargon" and "straight English" is just the discrepancy between our understanding of the things that states or institutions should do and their understanding of the necessary procedures.
I don't mean to say that jargon never serves dishonesty or obscurantism, but those have always been with us. The general concern over political jargon now--a concern felt throughout the West--reflects mostly dismay over the difficulty in maintaining democratic control of public institutions in the face of the increasingly intricate workings of the modern state. President Reagan goes on TV to defend his tax program; he can speak either of "loopholes" or of, say, "fiscal incentives. In the second case, he may be accused of using jargon, and we may doubt whether he really has our interests at heart.
Think hard about our objections to political jargon and you will be led to consider a fundamental modern political problem: What is an "informed" electorate in this age, and how does it get that way? If critics have a social responsibility to resist jargon, they are on shakier ground when they take on certain other usages that would have been barbarisms in the traditional scheme of things. They would be wise to say nothing about true slang, the special language of linguistically disenfranchised groups like the young, the minorities, and the underworld.
It is absurd for Joseph Epstein to take on honky , or for the members of the Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage panel to be asked whether they approve of a usage like I can't cope. Asking middle-class critics to rule on such matters is like asking me as a linguist to pronounce on whether Frank Robinson uses squeeze play correctly. But the "vogue words" of the middle class are a legitimate concern, if not one on quite the same level as political jargon. Lately, we have had to deal with a profusion of "psychobabble" expressions, like meaningful, in a good space , and so on.
I recently received an announcement of a seminar on "Optimizing Productivity and High-Level Wellness," and, on reflection, I think my grimace was morally defensible. But what is the basis for our instinctive distaste for this sort of talk? In calling it "babble," we imply that it is just meaningless noise, used by people who have neither the intelligence nor the character to consider their condition in any depth.
That misses the point, I think. If there is a real basis for objecting to such expressions, it is that they do have meanings and that the expressions carry along with them a picture of the self that in the critics' view is illegitimate. Take the word lifestyle , which I mentioned before. The word sticks in Joseph Epstein's craw too, and one of the things that makes Epstein an interesting critic of the language is that he does not stop at merely reporting his disdain: The objection to the word "lifestyle" is that it is at too many removes from reality; in its contemporary usage are implied a number of assumptions about life that are belied by experience.
Chief among these is an assumption about the absolute plasticity of character--change your lifestyle, change your life--that is simply not true; and the popularity of the word "lifestyle" is testimony to how much people want to believe it.
Epstein has hit on the sensibility that underlies the current use of life-style, but his argument leaves an important question unanswered: what is wrong with having the word? After all, there really are life-styles. Some people choose to have split-level houses and Ford station wagons, while others have condos with wet bars and drive Porsches, and if that isn't a difference of style, what is it? Would anyone object if we talked about "the Southern California style of living"?
The difference is that in giving a one-word name to a category, we make it into a kind of primary concept, which is presumed to have a basic place in our overall scheme of things. That is the intimation about life-style that bothers Epstein--and me. If the word life-style manages to survive for another generation, it is unlikely that anyone will still be bothered by it. Who is there under fifty who minds the use of contact and process as verbs, usages that set Wilson Follett's teeth on edge a mere twenty years ago? By contrast, the canon of solecisms has remained largely the same over the years.
These are violations of the rules of verb agreement, pronoun case, and so on, rules that are supposed to ensure that prose will be constructed logically. The word logic can mean several things. A discourse is logical if its conclusions follow from its premises, but that has nothing to do with the grammatical construction of its sentences.
Provided that it is logical, in this sense, to say Everyone who leaves after six will miss his train, it is equally logical to finish the sentence. The notion of logic at stake in the discussion of solecisms has to do with syntax, not sense: a plural subject is logically followed by a plural verb; two negatives logically make a positive; a pronoun following a form of the verb to be is logically in the nominative case.
But linguists have been at some pains to point out that this sense of logic is a curious one, if only because, unlike our sense of what constitutes a well-formed argument, it varies from one language to another. Two negatives do not make a positive in French or Italian, for example, nor does French use the nominative case after to be.
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Would we really want to argue that these languages are less logical than English? And if not, why do we insist that there is something illogical about the English sentences It's me , or I didn't see none? What is more, we seem to apply the rules of logic somewhat selectively. Surely it is illogical to say More than one student has failed the exam or Fewer than two have passed , but what grammarian would try to fly in the face of established usage here?
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The linguists are right in all of this, and right as well in saying that such rules serve little communicative purpose; It's me is no less clear than It is I. But it is precisely because these rules are arbitrary and difficult to observe that they may once have had a certain usefulness as exercises, for they force the writer to pay more attention to his syntax than mere communication would require. Take those old bugbears who and whom. To get your whoms in the right place, you may have to look half a dozen clauses down the pike, as in a phrase like the man whom many thought the general staff would have asked the president to appoint a committee to investigate.
And in writing, certainly there are benefits to knowing how a sentence is going to end before you get there. That is what Lionel Trilling had in mind, I surmise, when he wrote in defense of the distinction that "the difficulty it entails is of a kind the confrontation of which tends to build character, and in our cultural situation we need all the character we can get. The who-whom rule may have had a sound basis in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when convoluted Augustan sentences were common and when the model for good English was exclusively the written language.
It requires much more planning of the structure of the sentence to write like Johnson or Arnold than it does to write like Hemingway or to compose an op-ed piece for the Times. A better case can be made for some of the rules determining solecisms that operate within a single clause. Adherence to subject-verb agreement continues to be a good exercise, though it is important to note both that this rule too fails to serve real logic and that there are dialects of English as well as many other languages that do not bother with it.
Still more useful are the rules and strategies that inarguably help to make a discourse coherent and easy to follow: the injunctions against, for example, dangling modifiers and the use of pronouns with vague or confusing referents. It's not just that the observation of these rules makes a text more "readable," as E. The rules also help to remind us of the differences between private and public talk. A student writes, "He watches Claudius praying, wondering whether to kill him"; the offending clause is underlined.
In friendly conversation, we scatter dangling modifiers at will and stick in a this or an it whose referent is nowhere spoken but is easily recovered against the familiar background. It is only in the neutral context of public discourse that we have to be careful and explicit. The extreme case is in the public print, where writer and reader are at an indeterminate remove from each other.
Because we first learn our language almost entirely in intimate contexts, we have to make an effort to acquire the awareness needed for communication across contexts in which little can be taken for granted. This takes us to an important observation about the value of grammatical rules of all kinds. Critics and grammarians spend most of their time talking about the obligations of the writer or speaker to the reader or listener. But most people never so much as write a letter to the editor, much less appear on Meet the Press.
Why should we make such a fuss over the rules, then? You're missing the point" , Los Angeles Times , January 23, Elizabeth Landau, "On Twitter, is it 'he or she' or 'they' or 'ip'? Andrea Higbie, "George W. Bush: 'Awesome! And You Are? Rev , Baron, Ph. Bailey, Ph.
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Kaplan, Ph. Heller , S. District of Columbia v. Fisher, American Literature doi : Alatis, Language doi : Phillips, The Modern Language Journal doi : This division follows from the special status of the word as a basic linguistic unit, with syntax dealing with the combination of words to make sentences, and morphology with the form of words themselves. Huddleston and G. Cambridge University Press, "We want words to do more than they can. We try to do with them what comes to very much like trying to mend a watch with a pickaxe or to paint a miniature with a mop; we expect them to help us to grip and dissect that which in ultimate essence is as ungrippable as shadow.
Nevertheless there they are; we have got to live with them, and the wise course is to treat them as we do our neighbours, and make the best and not the worst of them. Big Words "A Czech study. Counter-intuitvely, grandiose vocabulary diminished participants' impressions of authors' cerebral capacity. Put another way: simpler writing seems smarter.
Words , considered as symbols for humans, provide us with endlessly flexible conditional semantic stimuli, which are just as 'real' and effective for man as any other powerful stimulus. Virginia Woolf on Words "It is words that are to blame. They are the wildest, freest, most irresponsible, most un-teachable of all things.
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