Not exactly a smackdown

« previous post | next post »

Ben Zimmer, posting on Monday on Visual Thesaurus ("Of Showdowns, Throwdowns, and Hoedowns"):

Last week we featured a debate over contemporary usage of whom, with Baltimore Sun copy editor John McIntyre squaring off against Stanford linguist Arnold Zwicky. To be honest, the exchange was a bit too civil and reasonable to live up to its billing as a "usage showdown" — at least based on the Visual Thesaurus definition of showdown as "a hostile disagreement face-to-face." I was amused to see that on his copy-editing blog, "You Don't Say," John McIntyre facetiously referred to the debate with an even more inappropriate term: smackdown, which most people (in the U.S. at least) would associate with professional wrestling.

(Ben then went on to discuss a few other -down words: beatdown, throwdown, and hoedown.)

John (who described himself as "a mere journalist and moderate prescriptivist") went first, quoting James Thurber:

When James Thurber set out to burlesque Fowler's Modern English Usage (a sacred text for Harold Ross and The New Yorker), he started out with who and whom, with particular attention to "the common expression, 'Whom are you, anyways?'"

and then discussing the use of whom in different contexts, recognizing that it has been steadily decreasing, and concluding that

It may be time to discuss letting go of the distinction in journalism.

I reprised a bit of my Language Log discussion of the two systems (the older and the more recent, which I called A and B) for using who and whom in English, and went on to sketch some of the content of a Language Log posting, "Rage against whom", that I've been working on for some weeks now.

John got more comments than I did, and his were much more entertaining.

The title of my posting-in-progress alludes to this over-the-top comment (by Joseph M. G.) on a VT column that began with a system B who?

How much faith can a writer or a reader place in an article about copyediting that starts with "Who are you going to call?" rather than with "Whom are you going to call?"? If Simon Glickman and Julia Rubiner okayed the article, then someone needs to donate a copy of Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style" to them ASAP. I didn't read the rest of the article. This hurdle is simply too high. As long as it's there, I can't have any faith in what follows.

(Yes, I caught the echo of the Ghostbusters song, but apparently Joseph M. G. did not.) I quoted this one in my VT piece, but didn't have space for a later, somewhat less excessive, comment (by Anonymous) on another VT piece:

The interview with Mr. Kendall is very interesting, but I wonder why Visual Thesaurus wrote, "Joshua Kendall, who we interview this week…"

Why don't you use whom instead of who? It is disappointing to see the English language being simplified in this way, especially by people who proclaim daily their love of language.

I quote these here because they capture the tenor of one set of comments John got, about "maintaining standards" and (from Thorunn S.) complaining about John's "defeatest [sic] attitude!":

Hey, why don't we just give up any attempt to hold the English language to any set of rules?

John even got a comment (from Christine H.) with the advice:

When in doubt about correct English grammar, I always relied [sic] on the rules of Latin.

which went on to declare that

If you speak correct English long enough, your ear will become finely tuned enough to recognize the discordant tone of bad grammar.

[I've marked defeatest (instead of defeatist) and always relied (instead of have always relied or always rely) with sic merely to indicate that these are not typos on my part. I suspect that neither commenter is a native speaker of English; if so, they should be cut some slack.]

All of these comments assume that system A is standard, system B non-standard (a claim I deny in my posting). Putting that aside, the first sorts of three comments present ideas that we have examined before on Language Log — that the standard language (or, more specifically, the formal written standard language) is intrinsically superior to the alternatives (so that using an alternative variety is exchanging the best for less); that using non-standard variants is abandoning all rules of the language (a kind of descent into chaos); and that the syntax of Latin should serve as the model for the syntax of English. None of these assumptions are defensible. And all fold in some version of the One Right Way assumption, the idea that there should be a single "correct" variant, for all occasions and all speakers.

But that's all old news. The last comment embodies a claim that I don't think we've looked at on Language Log.

On one reading, it looks like a near-truism: if you habitually use some variety, then you will probably come to judge other varieties as less good; your ear will be attuned to your habitual variety. But there are complexities here.

For instance, some people believe that varieties other than their own are better than theirs. They'll tell you that their L (English, Mandarin, Swahili, French, whatever) "isn't very good", adding that they "make a lot of mistakes" in their L.

Putting such cases aside, it's probably right to say that a lot of the time a lot of people do take their varieties as the measure of what "sounds right" and bridle at other varieties on that basis.

But that's not what Christine H. is talking about. Her claim is not general, but quite specific to "correct" language: if you use "correct" English, you'll come to "hear" that it's intrinsically better than the alternatives (back to the first comment I quoted above). In particular, you'll "hear" that system A is superior to system B.

Now there's a little puzzle: just how does someone come to use "correct" English habitually? By copying the models of the "best" speakers and writers, presumably. But how do you know which these are? You can of course select models on the basis of qualities that appeal to you — elaboration, clarity, fancifulness, brevity, and so on — but even if you have easy access to a wide variety of models, that won't ensure that the models you pick are the ones that those who take themselves to be regulators of the language label as "correct".

There's no getting around it: you've got to be taught (cue South Pacific). Things are not nearly as simple as Christine H. thinks.

Enough of the VT complaints. The other theme in the comments on John McIntyre's piece has to do with the Thurber quote.

In fact, the first comments John got were all about Thurber's "Whom are you, anyways?" (including an objection about the anyways). People fumed about the wrongness of whom here and cited justifications for their judgments (this is where Latin came in). Eventually, Ben Zimmer intervened — twice — to explain that the Thurber stuff was a joke, and that John had conveyed this via the word burlesque (not to mention the reference to Thurber).

Eventually, we (John, Ben, me) realized that some significant portion of our readership didn't know who James Thurber was. Ben inserted a link (above) to a site about Thurber, and other readers added comments about Thurber and his humor. Somewhat later, it occurred to us that not only did some readers fail to catch the burlesque in John's posting, but that a few might not have understood it.

Sigh. It's not easy to craft this stuff.

Share:



11 Comments »

  1. sleepnothavingness said,

    July 30, 2008 @ 7:19 pm

    Err … do I detect the phantom whiff of the old "post haste" elephant-trap running through this epistle?

  2. Anonymous Cowherd said,

    July 30, 2008 @ 8:21 pm

    > When in doubt about correct English grammar, I always relied [sic] on the rules of Latin.

    Perfectly grammatical. Obviously, Christine H. is simply never any longer in doubt about correct English grammar.

  3. Arnold Zwicky said,

    July 30, 2008 @ 11:10 pm

    To Anonymous Cowherd: oh, for goodness sake! Yes, the sentence is grammatical out of context (where it expresses a claim about the past). But it doesn't fit the context (which wants a claim about the present). But no doubt you understood that.

  4. Garrett Wollman said,

    July 30, 2008 @ 11:17 pm

    Arnold Zwicky: Now there's a little puzzle: just how does someone come to use "correct" English habitually? By copying the models of the "best" speakers and writers, presumably.

    I had always assumed that the way one 'comes to use "correct" English habitually' was by having Sister Ann Marie rap one's knuckles with a ruler until sufficient negative reinforcement has changed one's usage patterns. (Substitute Miss Thistlebotham for those who did not attend Catholic schools.) I hardly think the '"best" speakers and writers" have anything to do with the acquisition of style and usage preferences. Getting marked down on an assignment in the fifth grade for having used the "wrong" relative pronoun does.

    (I'm not sure I'm disagreeing with you, but your reference to "best" here and elsewhere strikes a dissonant chord with me.)

  5. Stephen Jones said,

    July 31, 2008 @ 9:08 am

    When in doubt about correct English grammar, I always relied [sic] on the rules of Latin.I agree with Anonymous Cowherd on this one. She has long ago decided what correct grammar is and believes that it is eternal.

  6. Jane Hart said,

    July 31, 2008 @ 1:05 pm

    If you're gonna do it right – do it right.

    It's not :- 'If you speak correct English long enough, your ear will become finely tuned enough to recognize the discordant tone of bad grammar.'

    It's :- 'If one speaks English correctly for long enough, one's ear becomes sufficiently finely tuned to recognize the discordant tone of bad grammar.'

    I recommend using the language taught to us by our parents when speaking to our parents and (in my case) something more accessible when I wish to be understood by whatever audience I am addressing.

  7. That Girl said,

    July 31, 2008 @ 7:38 pm

    Dear Mr. Wollman,

    When Sister Margaret Mary raps your knuckles she is actually using positive reinforcement. Positive, in the case of behavioral conditioning, is the addition of a stimulus (knuckle rapping). Negative refers not to the type of stimulus but the removal (taking off the Chinese finger cuffs) of a stimulus.

  8. John S. Baker said,

    July 31, 2008 @ 8:50 pm

    Some people seem to think language is a done deal. Over with. Fini. They think prescriptively. You should conform your language to some standard.

    I think language lives and can't be pinned down. Even Latin grammar will change if a new manuscript is found with a new grammatical usage. In my writing I often use words that spell check hasn't caught up with. Am I wrong for that? Language lives in me & I enjoy it. Have you made up any new words lately? Get cracking. The language needs you.

  9. Andy J said,

    August 1, 2008 @ 6:35 am

    Arnold Zwicky wrote: "Eventually, we (John, Ben, me) realized that…"
    So that's me not I then?

  10. Arnold Zwicky said,

    August 1, 2008 @ 10:29 am

    To Andy J: I go by my instincts in these matters; in this context, me sounded better to me than I (which would sound over-formal to me in this context). I would certainly not object to other people's using I here, however. And in very formal writing, I might reformulate the sentence as "Eventually, John, Ben, and I realized that…"

  11. Andy J said,

    August 1, 2008 @ 2:40 pm

    @Arnold Zwicky. "I go by my instincts in these matters; in this context, me sounded better to me than I (which would sound over-formal to me in this context). I would certainly not object to other people's using I here, however. And in very formal writing, I might reformulate the sentence"
    I guess one could re-cast those three sentences to cover the who/whom decision on much the same grounds. :)
    Thanks, Arnold.

RSS feed for comments on this post

Leave a Comment