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Judging but not judgmental

In the interview broadcast on WYPR this morning, Maryland Morning’s Sheilah Kast asked me a very good question about my dismissal of language peeving: Isn’t it important to take language seriously and make judgments? I fumbled for an answer* and have been thinking about the point ever since.

Of course we must make judgments in writing. We have to determine what is appropriate for the subject, the publication, and the audience. We decide what degree of formality or informality is appropriate, what level of diction is apt. We choose between long sentences and short, between Latinate periodic sentences and looser branching sentences. Syntax and vocabulary are our tools, and we make constant and subtle judgments about how to apply them to the job.

The judgments of peevers, however, are of a different class, because, rather than determine what is appropriate in context, of even distinguish between what is important and what is not, they universalize personal preferences.

As I said to Ms. Kast, we all make judgments about the way people write and talk, just as we make judgments about the way they dress. Those judgments reflect our personal likes and dislikes. He’s wearing brown shoes with a blue suit. I wouldn’t have done that. She says “like” as a place-filler in speech once every half a dozen words. Uh-uh, I’m not going to do that. Nobody is going to get me out in public wearing plaid pants or a baseball cap turned backwards (except maybe to win a bet). Nobody is going to hear me say nuculur.

We all make these internal observations and judgments, which are, in addition to being inevitable, largely harmless. What peevers do that looks illegitimate to me is to mistake personal tastes (some of them rising from unsound views about the language) for moral superiority: “I do not use the apostrophe to make common nouns plural, so I am well-educated and you are a moron. I do not say ekscape, and because you do, you are a barbarian.”

What is at the root of this is not moral superiority but status-conscious snobbery. “My mastery of these shibboleths of language usage marks me as a member of an embattled literate minority, a defender of civilization. You failure to meet my standards marks you as a member of the unlettered class, the mob, the rabble, the canaille. (Yes, I know French, too.)”

But I had my fill of pretense, both observing it and expressing it, during my years as a graduate student in English. Now, because I have real work to do as an editor, and a full plate of it, I don’t burden myself with regulating the way other people talk or write, unless they engage me professionally.

Peeving is a waste of time. And unless someone has issued you a badge or empowered you to make citizen’s arrests, you would do well to let it alone.

*God above, how can you people stand to listen to me?

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:42 AM | | Comments (8)


I made a similar point less eloquently in a recent comment on Language Log. Variations in usage seem to be interpreted as social and economic markers, even though they can be wildly misleading. People sometimes need to feel superior, maybe because underneath it all they feel inferior. But whatever its motivation, peeving is a curable condition. We can all be more merciful.

As Churchill never said, “That is the sort of errant pedantry up with which I will not put.”

While I like being peeved sometimes, I try to remember that it's just me. Happily we do not have a language police in these parts. Otherwise I'd be committing felonies and misdemeanors right and left (whether convicted of them, confessed to them, or getting off scot free).

Forgot to mention this Facebook page while you were here: "I Judge You When You Use Poor Grammar".

It's always struck me that many people who feel superior about their (perceived) language skills often do not feel ashamed of their lack of skills in other areas of (useful) competence, be it mathematics, computers, plumbing, auto mechanics, hand-to-hand combat, or what have you. (Or their sartorial choices, for that matter.)

Lawrence, tell Sheilah that I'm sorry about that dropped terminal h in yesterday's post. It has been supplied.

Anybody have a direct link to the MP3?

John, no worries: it happens all the time, and I do it, too. My apologies for letting the audio of this segment slip through the cracks. We somehow missed that entire day. We're uploading it right now, so if you check back at the website for the segment, the audio should be there soon.

I am completely lacking in "ept" about auto mechanics and quantum physics. I do not regret this. I do, however, insist on proper syntax. Let someone else worry about the rest.

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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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