Usage masochism

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I think it is time to make public my private suspicion that most of the customers for prescriptive usage guides are masochists. They want to be punished for imaginary grammar crimes. I plan to speak out. My paper at the Cambridge English Usage Guides Symposium this Friday afternoon will be entitled "The usage game: catering to perverts." Abstract here.

It is not just that the general public want certainty, with all grammatical disputes resolved in favor of a single Right Answer and all alternatives condemned as Wrong. They actually yearn for there to be harsh rules that they sometimes contravene so that they deserve to be punished.

This relates to the reluctance of ordinary users of English to question authority. They don't say, "Why does that matter?", or "Who told you that was a rule?", or "I speak this language fluently, and you're just wrong about that being an error." They meekly accept that they have done wrong and must try harder, very much like the character in the Monty Python sketch about the Piranha Brothers who says he had "transgressed the unwritten law" and hence deserved to have his head nailed to the floor, though he never actually knew what that alleged unwritten law said.

I worry that people will accept punishment for crimes they have not and could not have committed. This recent Language Log post provides an example of a completely spurious grammar crime. A copy editor changed which to that in a context where it was syntactically impossible (on the obviously intended understanding, the which was an interrogative word, not a relative pronoun), just like a corrupt policeman arresting a suspect for a crime he could not possibly have committed. The accused in this trumped-up case was a linguist, Eric Bakovic, and he shrugged it off. But I worry that many people, paralysed by nervous cluelessness, would have just meekly accepted their punishment (having their text changed in this case).

Some tolerate the punishment because they are too weak or ignorant to fight back. But I suspect that some crave punishment. They want to believe they are incapable of using their native language correctly, and to be abused and maltreated for it.

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