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There's a word for it

Dispute over proper usage did not begin 30 years ago with John Simon and Edwin Newman. There is even a word for it, logomachy, which Samuel Johnson defined in 1755 as "a contention in words; a contention about words."

As Henry Hitchings explains in Defining the World: The Extraordinary History of Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary, there is a very long history in English of "quarrels over what was in and what was out, over proper and improper usage, over the need to regulate language and the need to indulge it."

The current warring parties are delightfully delineated in David Foster Wallace’s 2001 essay, "Democracy, English, and the Wars over Usage," first published in Harper’s

and reprinted as "Authority and American Usage" in Consider the Lobster and Other Essays.

Wallace labels one side "Popular Prescriptivism, a genre sideline of certain journalists (mostly older ones, the vast majority of whom actually do wear bow ties) whose bemused irony often masks a Colonel Blimp's rage at the way the beloved English of their youth is being trashed in the decadent present. The plutocratic tone and styptic wit of [William] Safire and Newman and the best of the Prescriptivists is often modeled after the mandarin-Brit personas of Eric Partridge and H. W. Fowler. …"

They are opposed by the Descriptivists: "Descriptivism so quickly and thoroughly took over English education in this country that just about everybody who started junior high after c. 1970 has been taught to write Descriptively — via "freewriting," "brainstorming," "journaling," a view of writing as self-exploratory and -expressive rather than as communicative, an abandonment of systematic grammar, usage, semantics, rhetoric, etymology. For another thing, the very language in which today's socialist, feminist, minority, gay, and environmentalist movements frame their sides of political debates is informed by the Descriptivist belief that traditional English is conceived and perpetuated by Privileged WASP Males and is thus inherently capitalist, sexist, racist, xenophobic, homophobic, elitist: unfair."

Life, of course, is always more complicated and more interesting than mere polarities. As Hitchings points out in his highly readable book on Johnson, the great lexicographer started out with a typical 18th-century impulse to "fix" the language and prescribe proper usage by illustrations of the best models of usage. But Johnson, though never what one would call a descriptivist, came through his immense labor to understand that language is more fluid and changeable than any attempt to fix its meanings permanently can contain.

Similarly, Wallace makes the case for a modified, balanced, reasonable prescriptivism based on judgment rather than shibboleth. The starting point of his essay (with its extensive, entertaining and maddening digressions in footnotes, which the publisher of his book has chosen to reproduce in type cruel to the eye) is a review of Bryan Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage (since revised and retitled as Garner’s Modern American Usage). He praises Garner’s refusal to be dogmatic, his effort to establish authority on usage through reasonable appeals to the reader and sensible acceptance of the ways language develops and changes.

Joining the company of Mr. Hitchings and Mr. Garner is the modified-presciptivist, gray-haired, bow-tie-wearing, Anglo-Saxon-Scottish, white-male drudge pictured above.

Posted by John McIntyre at 2:27 PM | | Comments (2)


See David Foster Wallace talk to Garner here:

You had to know I'd be all over this one.

logomachy: < Gr. logos "word' + mache "battle, fight"

That's right: your private college tuition dollars at work. This is, by the way, my contribution to society. (Only the best from Greek majors, you see.)

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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