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Raving old white guys

It was inevitable that the author of the extraordinarily popular blog Stuff White People Like would eventually include, along with Priuses and teaching children to drink wine, grammar.

Among their remarks Monday on the subject:

Another important thing to know is that when white people read magazines and books they are always looking for grammar and spelling mistakes. In fact, one of the greatest joys a white person can experience is to catch a grammar mistake in a major publication. Finding one allows a white person to believe that they are better than the writer and the publication since they would have caught the mistake. The more respected the publication, the greater the thrill. If a white person were to catch a mistake in The New Yorker, it would be a sufficient reason for a large party.

They might well have pointed out that the tendency grows more pronounced with age. The greatest carriers-on often seem to be older white guys, their vermilion wattles trembling with rage as they inveigh against the shoddy education of the younger generation(s), the abysmal decline in literacy and the criminal disregard of English grammar as God intended it to be used.*

As often as not, despite their dogmatism, they are flat wrong about grammar and usage. These are the people whom the savants at Language Log were describing yesterday as “crazies,” who carry on and flourish their prodigious disdain over many inconsequential points of usage.

If you are among the hardy band of readers of this blog, you have an idea of what I think, but I’ll summarize.

Item: There are indeed rules of grammar and usage, but fewer of them than you are likely to have been taught. And many of you have been taught things that are just not so. (See this.)

Item: The English language is not decaying or degenerating. It does evolve, new words coming in, old words dropping out or developing new senses. There may well come a day when as a world language it evolves into successor languages, as Latin did into Italian, French, Spanish and Romanian, but that does not appear to be an immediate prospect.

Item (a corollary): It’s also doubtful that people on the whole are more ignorant or stupid than they used to be. Ignorance and stupidity were in ample supply among the populace when I was a young man, as far as direct observation goes, and the literature going back to Plato and further provides supplemental evidence beyond dispute.

Item: There are different kinds of language for different occasions and audiences, and it is neither necessary nor desirable for conversational language to coincide with formal written language.

Item: There is probably no stopping the human tendency to use language to make social and class distinctions, but you don’t have to make a fetish of it.


* I myself was once on a path to become one of these creatures, but, like Mr. Hudson in Upstairs, Downstairs, “I am older, and therefore wiser; and besides, I have learnt humility.”



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:33 PM | | Comments (8)


Humility, huh?

Along those lines, then, you may enjoy this op-ed in the LA Times that contends the language is threatened by instant-message-speak, lolcats and generalized teen slang.

Yeah, it's those damn kids with their long hair and their loud music and their crazy clothes and their caps on backward. THEY'RE RUINING EVERYTHING.

I blame Run-DMC, responsible for the language-damning lyric, "not bad meaning bad but bad meaning good." After that, all reason went out the window.

People are not more stupid than they used to be but, they are not as well educated . Today subjects being taught in college used to be taught in High School .

It appears my comment on "nuptuals," "unecessary," and "prevelance" (in the same paragraph, no less!) are better placed here rather than in the blog entry on copy editors. Glee over finding typos in major publications is not limited to old white guys, I assure you. We middle-aged white women with gray streaks in our hair and chains on our reading glasses also get our rocks off from it. I blame Candies, the shoe company. Their logo is "Candie's." Since shoes generally occur in pairs, we naturally think that's a plural rather than a shoe owned by a girl named Candie. In my opinion, that was the end of Western civilization. It was all downhill from there.

I prefer a quote from Roger Waters on Pink Floyd's "The Final Cut" album:

"I was just a child then ... now, I'm only a man."

Those same damn kids with their long hair and crazy clothes were ruining things in 1970 every bit as much as they're ruining things in 2008.

"Ah, but I was so much older then; I'm younger than that now." (Bob Dylan, yet another root of all wisdom and all evil, depending on which way your baseball cap faces)

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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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