Yesterday, I discussed Joan Acocella's strange misreading of two essays introducing the fifth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary ("Rules and 'rules'", 5/11/2012).
John Rickford wrote that "the patterns of variation and change … are regular rather than random, governed by unconscious, language-internal rules and restrictions" — but Ms. Acocella took this defense of "vernaculars that are commonly regarded as lacking rules", from a scholar known for his defense of "Ebonics", as a stalwart affirmation of prescriptive standards.
Steven Pinker tried to explain how false beliefs about standard usage, like No Split Verbs or No Final Prepositions, can become widespread — but Ms. Acocella took this attempt to distinguish between true and false beliefs, from the author of a popular book on "Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language", as promoting the idea that "there are no rules", other than the false "old wives' tales" he debunked.
If you've read Acocella's review, you will have noticed something else about this hallucinated debate: she's really angry about it. In particular, she doesn't care for Hallucinated Steve Pinker at all.
You can see this animus in her gratuitous comment about his choice of terminology:
There are no rules, he declares. Or they’re there, but they’re just old wives’ tales—“bubbe-meises,” as he puts it, in Yiddish, presumably to show us what a regular fellow he is.
Pinker's own account of this choice:
I call them bubbe meises, Yiddish for “grandmother’s tales,” in tribute to the late language columnist William Safire, who called himself a language maven, Yiddish for “expert.”
Acocella's anger emerges again in excoriating the AHD's editors for publishing Pinker:
Most important is that the editors tried to pull descriptivists over to their side. In the most recent edition, the fifth, they have not one but two introductory essays explaining their book’s philosophy. [...] For the editors of the A.H.D. to publish Pinker’s essay alongside Rickford’s is outright self-contradiction. For them to publish it at all is cowardice, in service of avoiding a charge of élitism.
But Pinker is the chair of the dictionary's Usage Panel, and so his essay, explaining "Usage in the American Heritage Dictionary", was included ex officio, not recruited as part of some sinister plot to placate descriptivists. (And the idea that Steve Pinker might have been recruited to protect John Rickford from "a charge of elitism" is truly hilarious.)
Acocella's ire at Evil Descriptivists emerges even more strongly in her discussion of the book she's reviewing, Henry Hitchings' The Language Wars: A History of Proper English. Since Hitchings debunks false claims about allegedly proper usage, he must be one of those "anything goes" guys — but wait, he admits that there are also real linguistic regularities! In her final two paragraphs, she combines this hallucinated contradiction with a common complaint about the hypocrisy of writers who use standard English in defending vernacular usage:
… the A.H.D.’s run for cover is not as striking as the bending over of certain descriptivists, notably Hitchings. Having written chapter after chapter attacking the rules, he decides, at the end, that maybe he doesn’t mind them after all: “There are rules, which are really mental mechanisms that carry out operations to combine words into meaningful arrangements.” We should learn them. He has. He thinks that the “who”/“whom” distinction may be on its way out. Funny, how we never see any confusion over these pronouns in his book, which is written in largely impeccable English.
No surprise here. Hitchings went to Oxford and wrote a doctoral dissertation on Samuel Johnson. He has completed three books on language. He knows how to talk the talk, but, as for walking the walk, he’d rather take the Rolls. You can walk, though.
If a student so badly misunderstood simple ideas expressed in clearly-written texts, the usual response would be to bemoan the decline of critical reading skills in kids today. But Ms. Acocella is no student — and her misreading of works on the norms of usage has, I suspect, been part of her magazine's culture for more than fifty years.
Consider this passage from E.B. White's letter to J.G. Case, his editor at Macmillan for The Elements of Style, dated 17 December 1958 (emphasis added):
I was saddened by your letter — the flagging spirit, the moistened finger in the wind, the examination of entrails, and the fear of little men. I don't know whether Macmillan is running scared or not, but I do know that this book is the work of a dead precisionist and a half-dead disciple of his, and that it has got to stay that way. I have been sympathetic all along with your qualms about "The Elements of Style," but I know that I cannot, and will-shall not, attempt to adjust the unadjustable Mr. Strunk to the modern liberal of the English Department, the anything-goes fellow. Your letter expresses contempt for this fellow, but on the other hand you seem to want his vote. [...] In your letter you are asking me to soften up just a bit, in the hope of picking up some support from the Happiness Boys, or, as you call them, the descriptivists. (I can write you an essay on like-as, and maybe that is the answer to all this; but softness is not.) [...]
All this leads inevitably to like-as, different than, and the others. I will let them lay for the moment, sufficient unto this day being the etc. My single purpose is to be faithful to Strunk as of 1958, reliable, holding the line, and maybe even selling some copies to English Departments that collect oddities and curios. To me no cause is lost, no level the right level, no smooth ride as valuable as a rough ride, no like interchangeable with as, and no ball game anything but chaotic if it lacks a mound, a box, bases, and foul lines. That's what Strunk was about, that's what I am about, and that (I hope) is what the book is about. Any attempt to tamper with this prickly design will get nobody nowhere fast.
P.S. When I said, above, that Macmillan would have to take me in my bare skin, I really meant my bare as.
(For more of the letter, see "No smooth ride is as valuable as a rough ride", 2/19/2005.)
Key elements of Acocella's 2012 screed are present in White's 1958 letter: in particular, the view that publishers are conspiring behind the scenes to placate hypocritical liberal descriptivists, "little men" who believe that "anything goes".
And a brief examination of E.B. White's "bare as" may help explain his anger — and Acocella's. There's an excellent discussion of this issue in the entry for like, as, as if in Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage. I invite you to read the whole thing, which I will summarize briefly here.
In the 1950s, shortly before E.B. White's letter to his editor, an advertising slogan ("Winston tastes good, like a cigarette should") created a storm of controversy in the popular press about the use of conjunctive like. In the New Yorker, the editors Viewed With Alarm this "obnoxious and ubiquitous couplet", with its "pesky 'like'". Strunk (and Strunk & White) condemned this "illiterate" usage, which "lately … has been taken up by the literate, … who use it as though they were slumming".
There was a problem with this picture, as some of those Happiness Boys noted: it got the facts wrong. To quote MWDEU:
… information published in the Middle English Dictionary shows that like by itself was used as a conjunction as long ago as like as was — from the late 14th century. [...] Chaucer used it in about 1385 to introduce a full clause in The Complaint of Mars.
Conjunctive like was also used by Shakespeare and others around 1600, but it becomes rare during the 17th and 18th centuries. However,
In the 19th and 20th centuries conjunctive like becomes much more common. Jespersen 1909-49 (vol 5) tells us that "example abound" and lists them from Keats, Emily Bronte, Thackeray, George Eliot, Dickens, Kipling, Bennett, Gissing, Wells, Shaw, Maugham, and others. So we must conclude that Strunk & White's relegation of conjunctive like to misuse by the illiterate is uninformed.
This is the kind of "attempt to adjust the unadjustable Mr. Strunk" that E.B. White was so upset about. And when deeply-felt beliefs and allegiances come into stark conflict with the facts, an emotional response is normal.
Sometimes, people who are faced with such conflicts can adjust their beliefs and allegiances to accord with reality. But others respond with denial, willful misunderstanding, and conspiracy theories. You can see that sort of response in climate-change denialists — and it seems that the staff of the New Yorker have been English usage denialists for more than half a century.