The persistence of superstition
Slow-witted as I am, it has taken a long time for the penny to drop about the reason that superstitions about grammar and usage are so durable. Because they are simple and easy to remember, they serve as “tells” about other people.
When I see a gentleman who is wearing brown shoes with a blue suit, I put a little tick against that person in my head. The same thing happens when I hear someone say “IN-ter-est-ing” or pronounce the t in often. Or when someone walks into a brew pub and orders a Bud Light. We all make multitudes of minor judgments about other people every day, and we keep them to ourselves if we’re smart enough to realize that they are purely personal and arbitrary.
The superstitions about grammar and usage have origins. Dryden campaigned against stranded prepositions because he imagined that to be correct, English had to resemble Latin. Hopefully slumbered peacefully in the bosom of the language for centuries until it caught on as a vogue term about half a century ago and was scorned by the type of people who didn’t like the type of people who talked that way.
The superstition outlives its origins. No one today thinks that English ought to be made to resemble Latin. Apart from the peevers and sticklers, resistance to hopefully has faded, as the objection to contact as a verb faded before it. But the objections survive because they are simple, easy to remember, and convenient for labeling people. They are shibboleths, in the same sense as the word is used in Judges 12: a marker to identify People Who Are Not Like Us.
Most of our private snobberies are relatively harmless. I’m not the fashion police; you can dress as you like. It’s of no real consequence to me that you drink Bud Light, so long as I don’t have to. But it is different with language peeving and snobbery.
In the first place, they don’t teach you in school how to dress or what booze to drink,* but they are supposed to teach you how to write. And if they are wasting their time and yours with a load of codswallop, they are inhibiting your ability to use the language with facility and grace.
And then, the peevers universalize their private preferences. Worse, they make them moral issues. They don’t carry on about the decline of Western civilization if hideously ugly and uncomfortable platform shoes come back into vogue, or people mix Red Bull with rum and Sour Apple Pucker,** but they do sound the barbarians-at-the-gate alarums over points of English usage. And when linguists and lexicographers point out that they exaggerate, or are simply wrong, they cannot abandon or even question their snobberies, which are essential for propping up their sense of self-worth.***
Though they waste time in the schools, and sometimes on copy desks, their protestations are futile—the language goes where it will—and ultimately comical. I recommend to you the purchase of Dwight Macdonald’s Against the American Grain. If you can find one. Read his essays from the 1950s and early 1960s huffing and puffing and fulminating against Webster’s Third International, the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, the National Council of Teachers of English, and all linguists. Today they sound tinny and fusty.
Or have a look at Jan Freeman’s excellent Ambrose Bierce’s Write It Right, to see how quickly each pronunciamento ages and begins to look misguided, pointless, silly.
There is no getting away from our private judgments and snobberies. They are essential to our navigating the world day to day, because we cannot investigate every person and situation and text exhaustively. But it is salutary to keep them within bounds, and to subject them to a little examination from time to time.
*Though, to be sure, it is learned there.
**I am not making this up.
***How do I know so much about the psychology of sticklers? Because I myself am a recovering stickler.