If you've ever found yourself thinking that Language Log writers seem concerned with form rather than function — that they obsess about the details of how things are put, to the exclusion of concern with the core content that really matters, and that they will probably miss the historic excitement of this January 20 grubbing around for prepositions — you need to take a look at the following passage by Jill Lepore of Harvard. It's from her article in the January 12 New Yorker on the language of presidential inaugural addresses. Lepore makes reference to claims in Elvin Lim's book The Anti-Intellectual Presidency that American presidential inaugural addresses have been getting stupider, with stupidity being measured by Flesch Readability Test word- and sentence-length criteria:
The past half century of speechwriters, most of whom trained as journalists, do favor small words and short sentences, as do many people whose English teachers made them read Strunk and White's 1959 "Elements of Style" ("Omit needless words") and Orwell's 1946 essay "Politics and the English language" ("Never use a long word where a short one will do"). Lim gets this, but only sort of. Harding's inaugural comes in at a college reading level, George H. W. Bush's at about a sixth-grade level. Harding's isn't smarter or subtler, it's just more flowery. They are both empty-headed; both suffer from what Orwell called "slovenliness." The problem doesn't lie in the length of their sentences or the number of their syllables. It lies in the absence of precision, the paucity of ideas, and the evasion of every species of argument.
A beautiful expression of a point we have often tried to emphasize. It's not so much that the superficial rules for writing promulgated Orwell and by Strunk and White are toxic and meretricious (though they do poison young minds, and should be condemned for that); it's that if you think they are deep and important and determinative of quality, it is YOU that will get hung up on trivialities of form rather than important aspects of content.
We've occasionally seen commenters here who suggest that linguists are always on about syntax or usage or phonology, and they fail to see the important stuff about politics or history or humanity or whatever. It is easy to see how a superficial look could lead to that mistake: this is indeed a site devoted to promulgating discussion of language, using the technical terms developed within linguistics. Everything published here ought to show clear signs of being motivated by a technical interest in language. But linguistic form is not some trivial irrelevance; it's what content comes encased in. And if you follow the line taken by the superficial and ignorant prattle that dominates popular discussion of usage, and keep score in the pointless game of grammar Gotcha, then you are going to be misled.
Our regularly expressed hostility to the shallow grammar-bossiness and vapid style-mongering of Strunk and White, and our oft-mentioned low regard for Orwell's essay on English, have a deeper motivation than mere irritation at the simplistic arrogance and hypocrisy of these works. The deeper point is that althought the actual analysis of language in those works is so bad, the attachment to them on the part of American educators and educated people so extreme that there is a real danger of the packaging being confused with the contents. Educated Americans have a tendency to think that (i) intelligence can be directly assessed through the surrogate of compliance with the rules of Standard English grammar, and that (ii) compliance with the rules of Standard English grammar can be checked quickly and easily by glancing in Strunk and White's brainless little pamphlet of 19th-century grammar nonsense. Both propositions are wrong and dangerous, yet tacit acceptance of them is widespread.
I have heard of a boss who openly declared that he wouldn't have anyone working for him who would write a split infinitive. When I assault that as ridiculously misguided, a perversion of grammar sensitivity, it's not because the important thing is whether adverbs go in between the meaningless marker to and the accompanying plain verb in an infinitival clause. I'm not an idiot, and I don't think the exact location of adverbs and other verb phrase modifiers is something to organize your life around. But that's the whole point: it's not me who's doing that, it's this insane boss. What makes the issue a serious one for me is that a man would judge intelligence and employability on something like this. It does indeed display pig-ignorance of English syntax and literary usage to be hung up on split infinitives, but that's the less important point. The more important side of it is that this boss is a maniac who has his priorities all wrong. I'm worried not about where his adverbs might go but about where his marbles have gone. The danger is not about modifier location but about whether he will be an insane boss in other ways as well.
For brief details about the split infinitive, see my short essay at http://ling.ed.ac.uk/ ~gpullum/ grammar/ splitinf.html, or any of our many posts on the topic. But never think that Language Log writers are mired in this sort of detail because they can't see anything else. We are concerned with all the important things that you are concerned about: justice, peace, stability, fairness, tolerance, kindness, comfort, thrift, generosity, love, sex, music, art, death, life, the universe, and everything. We study the minutiae of linguistic form partly because it is fascinating (to us, anyway — your mileage may differ), but also because it would be a shame if people were led away from the truth about more important things by stupid and avoidable errors about what mere language can tell us. Like if you thought psycholinguistic scientists had shown that women talk three times as much as men (there is no such result); or if you thought (as Jill Lepore does not) that the Flesch Reading Test was a measure of intelligent thought.