My name is John, and I’m a stickler.
(Your response: “Hello, John.”)
Early ambition to be a good student—that is, to be a teacher’s pet—reinforced by becoming an English major and graduate student, made me a terrible snob in my twenties, unrelentingly judgmental about people, based on their grammar, syntax, and pronunciation.
The stickler claims that he merely upholds high standards against a rising tide of sloppiness, imprecision, vulgarity. But while one indeed encounters a great deal of sloppiness in thinking and expression, what the stickler resists confronting and admitting is how much his sticklertude is a prop for his ego and his class status.
In You Are What You Speak (Delacorte Press, 312 pages, $25), Robert Lane Greene points out repeatedly how much of our talk about language is fundamentally political rather than linguistic, often “the politics of an aggrieved conservatism, standing against youth, minorities, and change.” The ludicrous idea that English in the United States requires some kind of statutory protection is the product of a fantasy about our nation, our history, and our culture: “American longs for an overwhelmingly ‘Anglo-Protestant’ model that never existed in the form in which most people imagine it.” (Benjamin Franklin, he points out, thought that all those Germans were a threat to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.)
It is telling that when the most hidebound prescriptivists talk about people in linguistics—the Enemy—they say that descriptivists believe that anything any English speaker says or writes is OK, and then they link the anything-goes attitude to the permissiveness of the Sixties. Logomachy is Kulturkampf.*
Happily, for those who do not have the spittle of rage on their lips, Mr. Greene is a thoughtful and reasonable exponent of sensible information about language. If you, like I, were brought up on schoolroom grammar and usage that mixes actual rules with bogus ones, you will find his account of the development of English and the activities of linguists informative. Example: Descriptivists hold that “[g]rammar rules should generate sentences that a large majority of speakers of a given (dialect of a) language would accept as correct.” There are rules.
For another example, he corrects the sticklers’ insistence on the primacy of written language. “Spoken language may be a natural faculty wired in the brain, which needs input only during the formative years to become the amazing machine that is the adult language-producing box.** Writing is an artificial modern skill that must be taught for years when children are older, and (as the stickler knows) the results often fail to impress.”
Mr. Greene is not limited to the rules and superstitions of English and the identity that they support. He examines French, in which the dialect of Paris has had considerable success in suppressing regional forms of the language, but which the famous Academy has been powerless to protect against inroads from English.
And he presents a cautionary account of what happened with Arabic, in which the official form of the language is frozen as that of the Quran, but which few speakers of modern Arabic use. “This is an ironic result of an extremely successful prescriptivism; the standard language was frozen by prestigious grammar codifiers, but the spoken language moved so far along that a thousand years later, writing and speaking require two different languages. (English and French prescriptivists, take note: this is what ‘success’ looks like in the long run. You can freeze writing, but you will never be able to freeze speech.)”
Mr. Greene would have you think of language not a box, with sharp borders and clearly defined “correct” rules inside, but as a cloud, fluid, shifting, and unavoidably messy. Rather like reality.
In my case, abandoning hard-shell prescriptivism has been liberating. No longer responsible for regulating other people’s speech and signage, I can be a snob about things that don’t really matter much (bourbon and martinis) while employing prescriptivism where it is legitimate, in editing. Editors uphold the (admittedly arbitrary) standards of their publications, making judgments on the basis of subject, context, and audience rather than an inflexible set of Rules, and respecting the variety and originality of the language.
I am a recovering stickler. Keep coming back.
*Logomachy (Greek “word battle”) is a dispute over words. Kulturkampf (German “culture struggle”), originally the fight in Bismarck’s Germany between secular and religious authority, can be extended to our contemporary culture wars.
**In another passage: “Speech is jazz—first you learn the basic rules , and then you become good enough to improvise all the time. Writing is somewhat more like classical composition, where established forms and traditions will hold greater sway.”