Louis Menand ("Thumbspeak", The New Yorker, 10/20/2008) aims a gibe at my profession:
[P]rofessional linguists, almost universally, do not believe that any naturally occurring changes in the language can be bad.
As a representative of the species, I can testify that this is false. Rather, we believe that moral and aesthetic judgments about language should be based on facts, not on ignorant and solipsistic gut reactions.
Unfortunately, it's precisely ignorant and solipsistic gut reactions that tend to dominate discussions of English usage, and so linguists and other sensible people are forced to spend time trying to clear things up. This sometimes leads to the false impression that we have no stylistic opinions or grammatical judgments.
For example, last week I commented on the discussion of "Verbage" by Prof. Menand's fellow literary critic and New Yorker staffer, James Wood. Now in fact, I'll join Mr. Wood (and my fellow linguist Geoff Nunberg) in recommending against pronouncing verbiage as [ˈvɚ.bɪdʒ], or using it to mean "The manner in which something is expressed in words". But Mr. Woods treated this as Gov. Sarah Palin's "coinage", and wrote that "It would be hard to find a better example of the Republican disdain for words than that remarkable term, so close to garbage, so far from language". In contrast, I took the trouble to do 30 or 40 seconds of research, and discovered that the American Heritage Dictionary gives both her pronunciation and her meaning as secondary options, without any usage note, as does Merriam-Webster; and that the Oxford English dictionary traces the meaning "Diction, wording, verbal expression" back to Wellington in 1804, and forward through the 19th century.
Geoff Nunberg, who was the chair of the AHD usage panel, expresses the opinion that the lack of a usage note in this case was an error; and on balance, I agree with him. But that doesn't excuse Mr. Wood's childish egocentrism, which assumes without checking that "This isn't how I pronounce or use this word, so it must be wrong; and I don't recall having seen this before, so it must never have happened before". Nor does it excuse his magazine's characteristic failure to exercise its duty to check the facts of language in the same way that it checks facts of biography or geography.
Prof. Menand's little poke at David Crystal was shorthand for a larger argument, which we've discussed many times here on Language Log. For example, in "Amid this vague uncertainty, who walks safe?" (2/23/2007), I quoted this passage from an Op-Ed by Alex Rose:
This conflict lies at the heart of the so-called “Usage Wars,” the epic battle between the “Descriptivists” and the “Prescriptivists.”
To a Descriptivist, there are no such things as “correct” or “incorrect” where language is concerned.
There is only the multi-faceted spectrum of human communication and the myriad ways in which people convey meaning to one another. Descriptivists correctly note that language, like etiquette or fashion, is largely a function of class; a society’s official rules of grammar and lexicon reflect the attitudes of whoever happens to be in power.
The Prescriptivists, however, believe that language is as much an art form as a utility. It’s one thing to name objects and command that traffic laws be obeyed, another thing to express oneself with clarity, precision and cultivation. It’s the difference between playing a scale and playing a sonata; between eating for nourishment and eating for pleasure. One way gets the job done, the other gets it done well.
In untangling the confusions in this passage, it's hard to know where to start.
Let me decline to enlist on either side of this concocted War of the 'Scriptivists, and speak instead on behalf of a third group: the Rational People. We believe in making value judgements about language use: some writers are better than others, and even good writers sometimes make poor choices and outright mistakes. But we also believe in the value of facts, both about linguistic history and about current usage. We're unwilling to accept the assertions of self-appointed linguistic authorities about what is "right" and "wrong" in standard formal English, if these assertions conflict with the way that the best writers write. We understand that vernacular forms of English are not faulty or degenerate approximations to the formal standard — instead, they're just, well, vernacular. We're willing to accept, as Horace was, that new words and structures, and new uses of old words and structures, can be a valuable addition even to the most formal linguistic registers.
In a nutshell: we don't worship our own prejudices, and we're more curious than censorious.
There's a characteristic psychological dynamic here. People like Mr. Rose see a bit of writing or talk that irks them. They're not interested in analyzing the problematic usage, tracing its history, looking at its contemporary distribution and its relationship to other phenomenon, exploring the nature of their own reaction to it — no, they just want to make those people stop, dammit. And they want the rest of us to join them in howling at the miscreants. If we suggest a more temperate investigation, or dare to question whether a crime has been committed at all, they turn their wrath on us as well. In fact, our analytic detachment seems to annoy them even more than the object of their jihad does.
For more of the same, you can sample the list of links to Language Log Classic from that same post, given below, or look at our recent posts filed under the category of "Prescriptivist Poppycock". (Perhaps we really ought have a counterbalancing category "Descriptivist Dumbness", or a simple superordinate "'Scriptivist Silliness"; but alas, it's harder to find good examples of nonsense from the descriptivist side.)
"Dangling etiquette" (12/14/2003)
"Cullen Murphy draws the line" (12/27/2003)
"At a loss for lexicons" (2/9/2004)
"Sidney Goldberg on NYT grammar: zero for three" (9/17/2004)
"Not a word!" (11/17/2004)
"'Everything is correct' versus 'nothing is relevant'" (1/26/2005)
"The fellowship of the predicative adjunct" (5/12/2005)
"Zero for three on grammar, minus three, makes -3" (6/8/2006)
"Go and synergize no more" (6/9/2006)
"There's no battle, Morgan!" (6/28/2006)
"Does Julia Gillard know subjects from objects?" (12/19/2006)
"Less than three years: a policy revision" (1/04/2007)
"Stupid wild over-the-top anti-linguist rant" (1/19/2007)
"I have different determiner constraints so you're awful" (2/5/2007)
"If you can possibly do without them they must be banned" (2/10/2007)
"The split verbs mystery" (8/23/2008)
[I should also note that back in 2003, Prof. Menand championed a very strange set of ideas about the proper interaction of possessives and pronouns in English, against baffled attempts by Geoff Pullum and Arnold Zwicky to come to terms with his views.]