Respect my authoritay*
Last week, Jim Thomsen, a colleague in the American Copy Editors Society, made an unequivocal comment on this blog about the nature of authority in language and usage: “There are no ‘authorities’ in language. Just people who are more bullying about their ideas and opinions than others.”
As I had mentioned in a previous post on grammarians, we have no Academie anglaise to make official determinations about the English language, and English speakers have a longstanding and inbred distaste for the idea. Our lexicographers disclaim any intention of establishing “correct” usage, focusing entirely on recording descriptively how the language is used by its writers and editors. We have a mixed collection of teachers and linguists and grammarians and commentators, all clamoring to be heard.
So the first part of Mr. Thomsen’s statement is beyond challenge. There is no sole, universally acknowledged Authority on English and how to use it. It is the rhetorical excess of the second statement that could lead to some productive thinking.
If we learned anything from the 1960s — and I concede readily that that is a highly suspect proposition — it is that authority is earned, not conferred automatically. Everyone who writes on language, Professor Geoffrey Pullum, John Simon, Bryan Garner, Steven Pinker, Edwin Newman, your humble & ob’t. servant and the colleagues on the accompanying blogroll, derives as much authority as the persuasiveness of their arguments can generate. **
I admire Mr. Simon’s formidable scorn (without necessarily accepting his argument), Professor Pullum’s thoroughness, Professor Pinker’s vast learning, Mr. Garner’s sweet reasonableness, and my colleagues’ earnest grappling with complicated issues of taste and practice. (The omission of Edwin Newman was not accidental.)
Pullum, Pinker and Garner — writing for different audiences and different purposes — all draw on stores of information about the history of the language and observation of current practice. And that is where we can begin to locate authority. Authority presents arguments grounded in research and information about etymology and historical usage, grounded in ample citation of current usages, grounded in questioning of assumptions and previous practices. Authority is informed.
And authority gains assent not through dogmatic pronunciamento but through reasoned argument, argument that an intelligent reader can follow and weigh. Since we have authorities rather than Authority, we have to sift through the arguments and conclude what best fits our own sense of the language, how it is used, and how we prefer to use it. If we are open to question and to persuasion, then we, too, can benefit from examination of the authorities.
* Do I have to explain an allusion to Cartman on South Park?
** Yes, it’s an everyone ... their construction. Go fish.