Wednesday, April 30, 2008
Let’s You and Him Fight
David Crystal is a gem! (Google says I’m the first one to make that terribly obvious joke online. I win the internets!) I’ve just finished David Crystal’s The Fight for English, my first go at one of his books. Mention at Language Log had gotten me started, but when I told a friend about it, he was surprised I hadn’t read any before. Now I’m surprised too. Crystal is entertaining and informative, taking a dry subject and making it into a juicy story.
But this newness for me goes beyond Crystal. Only in the last few years have I been reading what linguists have to say about grammar, mostly on the internet, with Language Log being a central source. In real life I am an adjunct composition teacher, one with a higher than average emphasis on sentence quality. To riff on Gertrude Stein, writing is about sentences and paragraphs. But I’ve had to train myself in the details, to improve my own understanding, since I had no real training in this stuff, other than what I learned in French and German classes, and to improve my explanations to the students. Just what am I asking them to do?
The linguistic perspective on these questions has thrown me a bit. I had the world neatly divided into dries and wets, fusty prescriptivists like Safire and Kirkpatrick, and loosey goosey descriptivists, liberation theologists of grammar. And I suspected I was a bit on the fusty side. Linguistics blew this binary up. Linguistics is dry. Perhaps not politically dry, but it’s rigorous, even tediously so. Nothing I’ve read could be called hippy thought. Yet it’s thoroughly descriptivist, or at least it seems, in its online manifestations, to take supreme delight in skewering prescriptivism.
Of course the situation is still more complicated than this. If it’s a fight, I’m going to have to take more beatings before I start to wise up.
Crystal reports being called an “anything goes type.” This strikes me as obtuse. He sees the usefulness in plenty of Standard English rules, although he also sees the uselessness in others, such as the infamous split infinitive. Well, “uselessness” isn’t the right word. But the use of some rules was more a matter of enforcing social distinctions than of making meanings clearer.
Crystal is a rules pluralist, someone who recognizes different contexts. In some contexts, one should follow Standard English. In others, one shouldn’t. He cites as an example the playground, where avoiding certain non-Standard idioms is itself a rule violation. This approach makes a lot of sense to me. For example: it’s hard for me to tell students that colons must be proceeded by an independent clause when they can read violations of that rule all the time, even in dead tree formats!
But Crystal reminded me of something I’d known but lost track of, or was insufficiently aware of, insufficiently aware that I was doing it too. But let me take one step back, once again: there is the undeniable fact, even for the fustiest of the fusty, that the language changes. Our rules and definitions are not timeless. In fact, the genesis of each can be traced quite clearly. But Crystal points out a corollary of this fact, something I hadn’t thought about but now seems blazingly obvious. These changes are gradual, which means that at any one time, there will be deviating practices. Some people will be using the old ways, and some people will be using the new ways. And it can be impossible to tell which will win out.
Which leads me to the thing I’d lost track of. Grammar rules can treated as a set of principles, a body of rules to be followed. But at the same time, they are also treated, and quite often described as, a set of best practices. That is, they are what the best users of the language do. Prescription is rarely done by fiat (although the split infinitive seems to be such a case). Standard English is a description of how the best, clearest writing works.
In fact, I enjoy reading folks like Fowler or Gary Lutz as much for the descriptions of how language works as for anything else. It always seemed to me that the prescriptivists were gang-busters at making distinctions, and distinction seems the soul of description, trying to capture what is unique about any thing. At the same time, I have for some time now been reading contemporary writing with an eye for what rules I have been teaching seem au courant. I would hate to become a pedant, if only because I’d do a lousy job of it, seeing as I’m about as scatter-brained as my students are.
Of course the internet and all this blogging fits into this, doesn’t it? I wanted to call it the 800 lb. gorilla, but I guess the current metaphor is a giant Andean cypress. Wow. Let me ask you, gentle reader (on the internet? can’t be!), what usage changes are you noting? For example, sentence fragments. More common than ever? And what about comma splices? I’ve berated my students endlessly on these, now I read them all over the place.
To try to show my students how comical this can all get, I throw out this bit from Horse Feathers, in which Groucho chides his collegiate son, Zeppo:
ZEPPO: Anything further, father?
GROUCHO: Anything further, father? That can’t be right. Isn’t it “anything father, further”? The idea! I married your mother because I wanted children. Imagine my disappointment when you arrived!
Caught yer drift ...
[2: commentbox strips " scarequotes from href?! should be:]
Caught yer drift ...
Adrift indeed. Fixed. The spelling, not my course.
I’d really like to spend some time with this, Lawrence, but I’m in the middle of grading papers! Perhaps I will find some juicy examples. If so, I’ll post ‘em here.
Typing “will find” just now, because of the context, reminded me of the prescriptivists’ old distinction between will & shall. This one never really made it over the pond, am I right? At least I never got it & I’m an English prof who started college in 1969.
Regarding will/shall, I once came across a German-language book on English usage. The verb paradigms respected the I shall vs you/he/she/it/they will usage, but the author apparently assumed that this was a stem-changing form that carried through.
The next page contained the conditional paradigms:
For those with an interest in grammar books you can actually use in day to day teaching, I highly recommend C. Beth Burch’s *Rhetorical Grammar*. Burch organizes the work with current linguistic research in mind, but she maintains an emphasis on the rhetorical choices a writer makes for effective writing. (She includes excellent chapters on rhetorical devices—anadiplosis, anyone?—and crystal clear examples from master writers for stylistic emulation.) Bridging the grammar/composition divide, it’s an excellent refresher for teachers and introduction for students.
I suspect you already know the work, but The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage does a fine job of historicizing usage prescriptions, often with wicked wit. It’s a hoot.
I’ve heard it’s good, but now I’ll really have to get it.
I have not heard of this book, but it sounds great. I’ll look into it.
Ben, how random, but I think the German book is “correct” from a <ahref="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Modal_auxiliary" >"genealogical" perspective.</a>