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The sadness of the teacher's pet

Someone has suggested that I stop picking on those nice people at the Queen’s English Society because they mean well and do no harm. On the contrary, to the extent that anyone, particularly teachers, should pay attention to their crackpot advice about usage, they are capable of doing a good deal of harm.

But, not wanting to grow monotonous, I’m prepared to move on. Before I go, though, I’d like to point out an interesting point about peevish psychology made by J.W. Brewer at Language Log. He suggests that peevology arises with the ugly discovery that the world does not reward in the same way that the classroom does:

In terms of the "disdain for the vulgar" side of the class angle (and I think it's right to say that there are multiple class angles, not all entirely congruent with each other), I don't know how many of the peevers are really members of the old landed gentry or the trust-fund set. I think it more has to do with the uncertain position in at least Anglo-American class structure of the intelligentsy and what you might call sub-intelligentsy. Regardless of whether its overt political claims totally follow, I think the late Robert Nozick's classic rant/essay "Why Do Intellectuals Oppose Capitalism?" (you can find at least an abridged version online by googling the title) may have a suggestive insight to offer here. Some subset of grownups who were always A students in school feel resentment (perhaps even ressentiment, as the Nietzscheans say) toward the real world for not actually rewarding the same skill set as school did and wish to have something (e.g. pedantic command of fake rules of prescriptivist grammar) with which to lord it over the erstwhile B and C students who were more socially adept than they were back in high school and are now more economically/socially successful in the real world. So this group does look on "being in trade" as vulgar, but is getting there from a rather notably different starting point than the old aristocracy did. This thus gets into another of my recurrent LL commenting hobbyhorses — peevology is often viewed as a right-wing sort of phenomenon (because it's crotchety and often talks about an idealized past from which we have lapsed) yet seems concentrated in practice, at least in the U.S., in occupational groups (journalism, publishing, schoolteaching, lawyering) whose denizens (at present, in the context of the U.S.) generally trend left-of-center.

I think there may been a similarity between the peevers’ status anxiety, combined with nostalgia for an bygone age of purity of usage that did not really exist, and the anxiety of a segment of the American public, mainly white and older, about loss of status in a multicultural society, combined with a nostalgia for an earlier America that was theirs that they want to “take back.” But that would be socio-politico speculation, and this is a language blog.


Posted by John McIntyre at 11:58 AM | | Comments (4)


You've certainly made the point eloquently before, John, that peevology has little, if indeed much of anything, to do with language.

Agreed, John. Musicology contains many of the same ills and faulty assumptions regarding an "age of purity......that did not really exist." The great fun with this is that the more one studies, the more one is able to blow purity theories out of the water. It also hopefully leads to experts not taking themselves so seriously. :)

I also agree. As an English instructor at a small Bay Area college, I can say that I'm surrounded by faculty members who are like the people referenced in this posting. It's awful to have this type of English teacher, and I agree that they can do harm, not only to the language, but also to the students who we are trying to teach to love words.

The sentence above which begins with "Some subset of grownups..." and ends (at last!) with "real world" is so long that I lost interest.Is this an example of "good writing' in a multicultural world I'm supposed to embrace? And why are so many in these "cultures" illiterate, ill-read and continue to drop out of school?

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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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