Confessions of a Grammar Nazi

[cross-posted at POT]

Well, usage nazi, really, more than a grammar nazi narrowly speaking.

And now that literal, open Nazis are a thing again, I’d really prefer another term for the “nazi” part. (I’ve seen some suggest “grammar cop,” but for an anarchist that’s only marginally better. I welcome suggestions.)

Anyway, folks like me are often regarded as having a nitpicky enthusiasm for arbitrary and pointless rules, and failing to recognise, as any good libertarian should, that language evolves spontaneously over time, and thus that rules of usage can only be descriptive, not prescriptive.

To this charge, my reply, first of all, is that whatever may motivate others of my tribe, I have no mere attachment to rules as such. I’m happy to revise or discard rules of grammar, usage, etc., whenever some genuine benefit is obtained thereby.

What motivates me, rather, is a love for useful and beautiful tools that are well-designed to perform specific functions, and a dislike of seeing them used in a way that ruins them. If we misuse a phillips screwdriver (and note that I have no objection to dropping the initial majuscule on “Phillips”) to punch holes in a wall or to chip bits off of rocks, we run the risk of blunting it in such a way that we lose the ability to use it as a phillips screwdriver. Likewise, when we use “decimate” (a term that bears its etymology and associated history on its face) to mean “destroy most of” (something we have many perfectly good synonyms for already – including “devastate,” which is probably what people were aiming for when they started misusing “decimate”), we undermine our ability to use it to mean “destroy ten percent of” – a very specific meaning for which no other term exists (and we also help to render the historical use of the term unintelligible).

Or again, when we use “may have” and “might have” interchangeably, we lose our ability to make certain useful distinctions, such as the fact that while it is arguably true that Hitler might have won World War II (since that means it was possible back then that he should do so), it is definitely false that Hitler may have won World War II (since that means it’s possible now that Hitler really did win it). And we thereby also undermine future readers’ ability to understand writing that respects such distinctions.

While I’m obviously a fan of spontaneous order, not every spontaneous change is an example of spontaneous order, and for that matter not all spontaneous orders are good. I also don’t think the distinction between descriptive and prescriptive holds up very well when considering a practice, such as language, that operates by implicit rules that anyone can contribute to changing, but where one of the most well-established rules involves, at least in many contexts, (defeasible) deference to experts.

By “deference to experts” I have in mind the sort of thing that Hilary Putnam talks about in his 1973 essay “Meaning and Reference”:

Suppose you are like me and cannot tell an elm from a beech tree. We still say that the extension of ‘elm’ in my idiolect is the same as the extension of ‘elm’ in anyone else’s, viz., the set of all elm trees, and that the set of all beech trees is the extension of ‘beech’ in both of our idiolects. Thus ‘elm’ in my idiolect has a different extension from ‘beech’ in your idiolect (as it should).

Is it really credible that this difference in extension is brought about by some difference in our concepts? My concept of an elm tree is exactly the same as my concept of a beech tree (I blush to confess) ….

[T]here is division of linguistic labor. We could hardly use such words as ‘elm’ and ‘aluminum’ if no one possessed a way of recognizing elm trees and aluminum metal; but not everyone to whom the distinction is important has to be able to make the distinction. … [E]very one to whom gold is important for any reason has to acquire the word ‘gold’; but he does not have to acquire the method of recognizing whether something is or is not gold. He can rely on a special subclass of speakers. … Thus the way of recognizing possessed by these “expert” speakers is also, through them, possessed by the collective linguistic body, even though it is not possessed by each individual member of the body, and in this way the most recherché fact about [gold] may become part of the social meaning of the word although unknown to almost all speakers who acquire the word. …

Every linguistic community exemplifies the sort of division of linguistic labor just described; that is, it possesses at least some terms whose associated ‘criteria’ are known only to a subset of the speakers who acquire the terms, and whose use by the other speakers depends upon a structured cooperation between them and the speakers in the relevant subsets. … When a term is subject to the division of linguistic labor, the “average” speaker who acquires it does not acquire anything that fixes its extension. In particular, his individual psychological state certainly does not fix its extension; it is only the sociolinguistic state of the collective linguistic body to which the speaker belongs that fixes the extension ….

In other words, even if most people use an expression one way, they may be committed to a rule according to which some other way, perhaps unknown to them, is more correct if certain identifiable experts say so. If this deference is actually to be considered part of usage, as seems reasonable, then the distinction between prescriptive and descriptive becomes rather blurry.

So what determines who the experts are – given that those ordinary speakers who intend to defer to experts may not have in mind any particular criterion for identifying an expert? Rather than appealing to merely academic credentials, which are likely to cast a net simultaneously too broad and too narrow, perhaps we might draw a page from Mill on higher and lower pleasures (with a dash of Burke and Hume on the standard of taste), and say that the experts, concerning any particular choice between two uses, are those who are a) familiar with both uses, and b) sensitive to the grounds for keeping (or not keeping) any traditional distinction between them, whether they endorse that distinction or not. (Hence someone might count as an expert with regard to one expression but not another.) So if, say, most people who know that “decimate” originally meant “destroy one-tenth of,” and have a sensitive understanding of the case for and against retaining that meaning, are willing to acquiesce in the new use, that counts as an expert judgment on behalf of the new use in a way that like acquiescence by the ignorant does not.

I am not saying, however, that the judgment of experts should always be followed, or that every change in usage should be resisted; some changes should be embraced, even if they go against the rules. The rules exist for us, not we for the rules. Since there is (thankfully) no central linguistic authority we can petition, the only way we can “vote” for changes in the rules of usage is to violate them and encourage others to do so. The move to reject the gender-neutral use of “he” is a good example; using “he” for both gender-neutral and gender-specific purposes is what traditional usage dictates; but traditional usage thereby creates problematic ambiguity, and in particular tends to reinforce the norm of viewing the masculine as the “default.” This is like a tool that keeps malfunctioning in dangerous ways; it makes sense to toss it out.

However, when a tool is useful rather than harmful, the fact that others, expert or otherwise, are voting to discard it does not imply that we should follow suit.

Of course, even if a change should initially have been resisted, if it is not resisted it may in time prevail and thus become “correct,” and if the problems it causes are smaller than the inconvenience and risk of unintelligibility involved in striving to reverse it, the change should be accepted – though there will be reasonable disagreement among experts as to when such a point has been reached with regard to any particular change, and that’s fine.

* * *

I would be remiss, incidentally, to touch on this subject without linking to Richard Mitchell’s brilliant essay Why Good Grammar?,” which makes many valuable points I have here omitted.

2 Responses to Confessions of a Grammar Nazi

  1. Rad Geek July 22, 2019 at 1:59 pm #

    I think Putnam’s right about “elm” and “beech,” but It seems like the cases you’re concerned with here (say the vulgar and classical uses of “decimate”) can’t easily be treated in quite the same way. At least, somebody who is a hardcore descriptivist about usage is not going to say that the vulgar sense of “decimate” should be accepted as legitimate (in some sense or another) because of the psychological state of the individual person using the word.

    Rather, they’re going to say that the reason it should be accepted (in some sense or another) is that there’s an existing, widespread, stable convention of using the word in that way, and people using the word in line with that established convention are (they’d say) perfectly good examples of successful performance in a systematic, norm-governed practice.

    So the question in their view isn’t going to be about about idiolect vs. community norms, it’s about one dialect vs. another — it would have to do with whether the relevant community norm here is popular or deferential, more like a rule of the road or more like a rule of formal place-setting. And I take it that most self-described descriptivists would want to say that that depends on a whole bunch of ordinary considerations about dialect choice — for example, the audience you intend to address, the context and the purpose you are trying to achieve, etc.

    The main view they are trying to attack is the (historically very common) grammar grumpus claim that some sociologically marked example of vernacular usage fails to be systematic or norm-governed at all — that is, treating it as an example of carelessness, haphazard or idiosyncratic usage, etc., rather than an example of successfully following an alternative set of conventions. (This point becomes especially important when looking not at usage advice or nice distinctions in isolation, but at systems — for example, comparing the tacit conventions of black English, regional dialects, etc. to rules derived from Standard Written English.)

    Of course, again, that doesn’t settle the question of whether or not there are some contexts, or even many contexts, where you ought to prefer one set of conventions over another. (There are times when it really is more useful, or more elegant, or more considerate, to set the napkin on a charger and to place the salad fork on the far left of the place setting while the oyster fork goes on the far right, etc.) But descriptivists are generally going to urge that (1) the choice is better understood as a choice among dialects or registers not a choice between correctness and error, or between careful and careless usage; (2) that the best choice is not always the choice of the few, but sometimes the conventions of the many (rather, the assessment should be sensitive to and partly contingent upon audience, context, rhetorical and aesthetic considerations, etc. etc.); and also, of course, that (3) scientific linguists have a duty to carefully, sensitively, and respectfully describe the conventional usage and the governing norms in all of these dialects, regardless of their social status or their appropriateness across various sociolinguistic contexts.

    (A lot of them also tend to believe that (4) there’s some good empirical evidence that describing and teaching rules of Standard Written English as a matter of choice among alternative dialects, rather than as a matter of submitting the students’ home language to expert correction, is pedagogically more effective at getting students to master SWE rules. I haven’t read the underlying studies, and I’m pretty skeptical of most empirical studies in language education anyway, so I don’t know how good or how bad the evidence for (4) really is.)

  2. Rad Geek July 22, 2019 at 2:00 pm #

    Incidentally, I think “grammar maven” is the polite term. And if you prefer a self-deprecating term, I’m inclined to recommend “grammar grumpus” or “grammar crank.”

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