Always look behind the curtain
A daily newspaper publishes an article about English usage. Inspection by experts discloses that it is riddled with errors. Meanwhile, the peevers have swarmed all over it with their intemperate comments.
The latest occasion on which the burlesque has been performed was the publication by BBC News of an article by Matthew Engel, “Why do some Americanisms irritate people?” Mark Liberman at Language Log took the trouble of examining Mr. Engel’s examples, discovering that about a fifth of them were of American origin, the remainder displaying British pedigree.
I’m not here to focus on the BBC or Mr. Engel—Professor Liberman has done a solid job of exploding the article. I’m intrigued by a follow-up post by Geoffrey Pullum, in which he observes:
“As a Scottish-born long-time American citizen working in Edinburgh among numerous fellow Americans, and a frequent visitor to London and other UK cities, I should have seen it somewhere by now; but I have never encountered hostility to America, Americans, or Americanisms in ordinary everyday interactions in Britain. … The furiously anti-American minority that the BBC has tapped into seem to keep their hatred of us and our speech tightly suppressed, letting it out only in blog comments and letters to the editor (particularly the Daily Telegraph, which is famous for its letters expressing how ‘appalled’ people are by purported grammar errors, neologisms, etc.).”
It seems to me that this British example throws into relief a pattern we’ve grown accustomed to. I’m fairly sure that racism, for example, has not gone away. But it is no longer acceptable to articulate it publicly, so it goes underground, surfacing in the anonymity of Internet comments, where angry people find it convenient—and safe—to vent.
The other element—the one I think we don’t pay enough attention to—is the “furious minority.” The Internet, as I’ve observed before, is a megaphone, and angry people can use it to indicate a strength disproportionate to their numbers, the people who are not angry having less of an impulse to post. So we often hear what sounds like the bellow of the mighty and all-powerful Oz, without noticing the sorry figure behind the curtain.
So in addition to my primary caution to fellow journalists—do not publish articles about English usage without having someone who actually knows something vet them—I offer a more general caution: Don’t give the shouters credit for more weight than they carry.