How Much Clemency for Word Crimes?

Lots of people are talking about Weird Al Yankovic’s new video “Word Crimes,” mostly debating whether his examples of errors are really errors or not.

Good commentaries:

I’m not going to join this discussion because if you want to know what I think about the points he covers you can just check out what I have to say about them in my book.

Although it’s funny and makes some useful points, I’m not crazy about the video. Neither is “Grammar Girl” Mignon Fogarty, and I agree with most of what she had to say in a recent post. Satire is often wildly exaggerated, and this is a typical example; but this sort of slashing attack makes thoughtful discussion of language usage more difficult.

I have an immediate problem with somebody who uses the word “grammar” to cover problems with spelling, word choice, and punctuation. (Neither the conservative Oxford English Dictionary nor the loosey-goosey Merriam-Webster recognizes this sort of use of the term, though Apple's dictionary does: “a set of actual or presumed prescriptive notions about correct use of language.”) I cringe when people call themselves “grammar nerds” and I’m truly repelled when people call themselves “grammar Nazis.”

Ben Zimmer wrote a brief post about the video which prompted many contributions from linguists and others of a descriptive bent who weighed in to criticize “peevers” like Yankovic. For a detailed discussion of my views on descriptivism vs. prescriptivism see the introduction to Common Errors in English Usage, but reading this exchange reminded me how much these folks peeve me.

Zimmer himself kept his comments to a minimum, but he turned his Language Log column over to sociolinguist Lauren Squires which lays out the conventional linguistic approach to English usage. If you’re not aware of what academic specialists think of writers on usage like Fogarty and me,  you might want to see what she has to say.

Basically, most modern linguists pride themselves on studying language change rather than trying to regulate it. They regard the rest of us as naive, high-handed, and even prejudiced. Squire’s views are typical of these academic specialists:

. . .a little rumination on Weird Al's violent reactions against “bad grammar” raises deep and longstanding questions of social equity regarding class, education, race, age, ethnicity, gender, and how these relate to languages, dialects, and social registers. There is ample research on these issues (which any sociolinguist could point you to), but the upshot is that the notion of “Proper English” typically serves to prop up the already-privileged speakers whose native language variety it is (sort of) based on. This puts speakers whose native language variety does not approximate “Proper English” at an immediate disadvantage in society, the same way that privileging Whiteness puts those who are not White at an immediate disadvantage in society. It is not the linguistic differences themselves that do this (just as it is not the racial/ethnic difference themselves that determine privilege), but the *attitudes* about them.
First off, the notion of “proper English” as racism is a red herring. And the vast majority of usage issues are not embedded in any particular dialect associated with a particular ethnic group. African-American linguists have long used the concept of “code-switching” to convey the usefulness of knowing different ways of speaking for different audiences. It is one thing to express yourself freely to those who speak like you and quite another to be trapped inside a dialect, without access to language that can communicate impressively with a wider audience.

Let’s look at this problem from a different angle. The masses of those who judge language are not writers about language but people like the executives who say they immediately discard any job application containing a “grammatical error,” the women who eliminate from their list of potential partners those who misuse language on social network sites, and teachers in fields other than English who give lower grades to students who write in nonstandard ways. These attitudes may be deplorable, but they need to be taken into account.

Language change is indeed a complex social process, as linguists say. What they usually ignore, however, is the part of the process that involves resistance to change. That’s a natural part of language change too. Neither the linguists nor the usage critics stand outside the process, although they sometimes think of themselves as doing so.

It’s condescending and potentially damaging to try to shield people from the criticism their language usage may evoke. It’s much more respectful and useful to alert people that they have a choice, and that their choices may have consequences.

The linguists and scholars who oppose usage criticism are a tiny minority, having some influence over composition teachers, but almost none over society at large.

The much larger group of usage critics, both formal and informal, has a huge and growing influence. As I noted in a previous post, usage peeves have in the last couple of years become a popular theme in comic strips, and the Yankovic video has roared past ten million views in just a few days. Indeed language does change, and so do attitudes toward usage. Linguists can deplore this trend all they want, but to be consistent they would need to observe that usage now matters more than it used to, despite what they would prefer.

The linguists view the critics as a snooty bunch who think they know better than everybody else.

The critics view the linguists (when they think of them at all) as a snooty bunch who think they know better than everybody else.

I don’t usually criticize specific people’s usage unless they ask me to. I do ask waiters if their bosses know there is a misspelling on the menu, and I recently wrote an advertiser in our local paper to let him know about an error in the headline assigned his ad by the paper’s staff. I think that’s helpful.

I oppose calling someone’s usage “stupid” but I think it’s important to know when you may unintentionally cause other people to think you’re stupid.

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