Genzlinger on Lynch: "Who knew?"

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Jack Lynch's recent book The Lexicographer's Dilemma was featured last week in the New York Times' Books section, in a review by Neil Genzlinger under the headline "This is English, Rules are Optional".  Arnold Zwicky recommended Lynch's book enthusiastically, back in December, and I agree with his opinion. Genzlinger also liked the book, and his review should be worth a well-deserved boost in sales. But there was something about Genzlinger's perspective that struck me as odd.

His review starts out like this:

It's getting harder to make a living as an editor of the printed word, what with newspapers and other publications cutting staff. And it will be harder still now that Jack Lynch has published "The Lexicographer's Dilemma," an entertaining tour of the English language in which he shows that many of the rules that editors and other grammatical zealots wave about like cudgels are arbitrary and destined to be swept aside as words and usage evolve.

Neil Genzlinger has been writing for the NYT for at least a decade, and his Wikipedia page says that he also works as a copy editor there.  So it's suprising to see him pitching his review of Lynch as "Gee, who knew?" rather than "Another blow struck in the Grammar Wars". I hope that this was just a rhetorical strategy on his part — but it's possible that he never before stumbled on the notion that (say) the demonization of split infinitives is a relatively recent superstition,  not a stalwart defense of ancient verities.

My usual reaction in such cases is to blame the linguists, for failing in our duty to educate the public.  But perhaps in this case we should raise an eyebrow at the nation's English Departments as well.

(There's some discussion of another review of Prof. Lynch's book in "Faults 'intollerable and euer vndecent'", 11/17/2009.)

[Update — let me try to clarify what struck me as odd as Mr. Genzlinger's lede.

The publisher's blurb says that "In its long history, the English language has had many lawmakers—those who have tried to regulate, or otherwise organize, the way we speak. The Lexicographer's Dilemma offers the first narrative history of these endeavors, showing clearly that what we now regard as the only 'correct' way to speak emerged out of specific historical and social conditions over the course of centuries."

Let's agree that this is true, or at least that Lynch's book is more complete, more accessible, and generally better than earlier works. Now think of analogous histories of ideas in astronomy, biology, chemistry, etc., and ask yourself how the NYT might review them.

Specifically, imagine a review that begins

It's getting harder to make a living as an astronomer, what with the recent cancellation of several large telescope projects. And it will be harder still now that Jack Lynch has published "The Star-gazer's Dilemma", which shows that the sun doesn't really revolve around the earth.

And if your response is "But very few people these days are aware of the long-established fact that 'many of the rules that editors and other grammatical zealots wave about like cudgels are arbitrary and destined to be swept aside as words and usage evolve'", my answer is, "Exactly".]


  1. MattF said,

    January 4, 2010 @ 11:46 am

    I don't think that Genzlinger was claiming ignorance– The opening lines of his review seemed to me to be more a self-mocking "What will copy editors do for a living if we have to stop enforcing arbitrary rules?"

    [(myl) Your paraphrase is accurate, I think — but a vigorous debate about this very question has been going on for at least a century. So it's odd to pitch the discussion as "ZOMG, some of our rules might be norms subject to change, or even arbitrary superstitions!" rather than "Editors, like lexicographers, have always faced a dilemma".

    It's especially odd, I think, since Lynch's goal is precisely to document the history of that dilemma.]

  2. Amy Stoller said,

    January 4, 2010 @ 12:17 pm

    I suspect the review was pitched to a general readership, not to linguists. I didn't get much of a "Gee, who knew?" vibe so much as an attempt to make the book seem user-friendly to the lay reader.

    In any case, the book seems like it should be a welcome antidote to Lynne Truss and her ilk, (though I confess to a lingering fondness – don't shoot; I'm only human! – for Strunk and White – however undeserved it may be deemed in these pages). I've been a fan of Lynch's Eighteenth Century Resources since I first got online.

    [(myl) There's no question that the review was pitched to a general audience, as of course it should have been. And as I said, Genzlinger may have chosen his approach simply for rhetorical effect — one of the best ways to praise a work of non-fiction is to frame it as teaching you something completely new that affects your life in an important way, especially if you have a vested interest in the ideas that it changed your mind about.

    But discussions of the nature and history of prescriptive grammar are part of general intellectual discourse, and not something that linguists are especially concerned with in their professional capacity. You'll find very few articles on related topics in linguistics journals, and hardly any relevant talks at linguistics conferences. For most linguists, these questions mainly come up in two contexts: first, in teaching or explaining about linguistics to outsiders (whether in undergraduate courses or at dinner parties), and second, in arguing with copy editors about their manuscripts, like any other writers sometimes need to do.

    I feel that this neglect is unwise, because it's connected to an unprecedented ignorance of linguistic analysis among today's intellectuals. But still, there have been plenty of popular books and articles over the past century or so that have given Genzlinger and his readers reason to suspect that "many of the rules that editors and other grammatical zealots wave about like cudgels are arbitrary and destined to be swept aside as words and usage evolve". I take G's decision to pretend (?) previous ignorance on this score as another piece of evidence about how bad the linguistic education of the past few generations has been.]

  3. John Cowan said,

    January 4, 2010 @ 2:52 pm

    I don't think "unprecedented ignorance" is correct. Relatively to linguists, intellectuals are far more ignorant than before, but in terms of absolute ignorance, they are probably somewhat better off, in the sense that medicine was better off in the 1920s than the 1820s: real knowledge was yet to come, but at least the old pseudo-knowledge had been lost.

    [(myl) I'd argue that the traditional methods of teaching the classical languages, as flawed as they were in many ways, nevertheless left their victims with a residue of relevant concepts and skills far beyond those of most educated people today. And the exercises in analysis of English prescribed for grammar-school students in the 19th century — as described here in one specific case — go far beyond anything now generally taught in high school or college. ]

  4. Aelfric said,

    January 4, 2010 @ 3:20 pm

    Just to add my unworthy two cents, I took that "it will be harder still now" bit as an indication that Mr. Gezlinger thought Mr. Lynch might well popularize some of the cited opinions, which, while not new, have not seemed to catch on too dramatically.

  5. Jack Lynch said,

    January 4, 2010 @ 9:16 pm

    Thanks for all the attention to my book. Of course I'm chuffeder 'n cheese at a high-profile positive review in the Times, though there's plenty in this review, as in the others to date, that seems silly to me. I suppose that's the way journalistic reviews work.

    My own interest in the language comes from the literary side of things — I have professional interests (and maybe a bit of expertise) in eighteenth-century literary history, especially Johnson and his Dictionary — though I'm only an amateur linguist, and am content to defer to the credentialed linguists when necessary.

    The Lexicographer's Dilemma was written for a popular audience, which inevitably involves some simplifications. And I'm sure I made more than my share of blunders. But I've noticed that virtually all the reviews are amused by the novelty of an English perfesser saying you don't gotta follow no rules, and that seems to dominate the headlines.

    Nowhere do I say, as the headline hints, "the rules are optional," though I do try to get layfolk to understand the various meanings of "rules" (linguists mean by that word something very different from schoolmarms). And while I point out that some of the arch-prescriptivists' favorite rules are downright silly, mostly I'm concerned with tracing the history of prescriptive attitudes toward English. And I have plenty of good things to say about prescription in the right context. Like Amy Stoller above, I'm fond of Strunk & White (though, for all their useful stylistic advice, they sometimes make a hash of the grammar). I've even written my own explicitly prescriptive guide to English for students and business writers (The English Language: A User's Guide), though in it I try to get people to understand the value of prescription in the right contexts.

    If the reviews were negative, I'd take these misunderstandings as a sign that the reviewers hadn't read my book with adequate attention. Since they've been positive (so far — touch wood), I am, of course, the model of equanimity.

  6. Graeme said,

    January 5, 2010 @ 2:27 am

    I'm curious about the claim that 'proper' usage could not exist when there were significant regional or dialetical differences. Within that dialect there was only one correct way to describe what chickens lay. (De)centralisation might correlate with (non)prescriptivism, but they are hardly the same.

  7. chris said,

    January 6, 2010 @ 6:21 am

    This stuff always reminds me of the medieval Church's attitude to vernacular translations of the Bible, i.e. ordinary, uneducated people should never be allowed to read the Bible for themselves, lest they try to come up with their own interpretations of it and decide they can disregard the interpretation laid down by the ecclesiastical authorities. That would lead to heresies all over the place and endless chaos, and the world would go directly to hell in a handbasket.

    I think there's a similar fear at work here, and it's what Genzlinger is referring to (whether for rhetorical effect or no): if people are made aware that the rules are not set in stone for all time, they might start thinking they can make up their own, and ignore those laid down for them by the "authorities", and chaos and heresy would reign – even if nothing could have been further from Jack Lynch's innocent mind when he wrote his dangerous, incendiary volume. Every last copy of which should clearly be burned without delay.

    Then again, the Reformation was kind of a good thing, wasn't it?

  8. Josh said,

    January 7, 2010 @ 1:37 pm

    I am a linguist by training and an instructor of various first year writing courses. I am excited about books like Lynch's. One of the more difficult things to get across to students is that while prescriptive rules are arbitrary (students are typically surprised to hear this), there is a certain social power in understanding what the rules are and the contexts in which they can be used or broken. Long discussions have been triggered by students wanting to know when a rule should be used and when a rule should be broken. I pretty much try to tell them that that is their call and what is important is that they understand the convention exists — and through that understanding get some perspective on how they relate to the convention. I think Bill Cosby has said similar things about urban vernaculars: nobody is asking you to give up your idiolect, but there is an intuitive co-variance between knowing language conventions and socio-economic power.

  9. Ken Brown said,

    January 7, 2010 @ 2:41 pm

    chris said: "This stuff always reminds me of the medieval Church's attitude to vernacular translations of the Bible"

    To be fair to the Middle Ages, that was really an early modern spat, not a mediaeval one.

    Until maybe the end of the 14th century no-one seemed to have much problem with Bible translations for private use. Small portions of vernacular scripture are found in devotional books. But Wycliffe's English Bible, translated in the 1370s and 1380s, was banned in about 1410. In Bohemia and Hungary Czech, German, and Magyar Bibles began to be widely used in the second half of the fourteenth century – possibly one cause of the Hussite schism – and Roman Catholics tried to suppress them from around the 1420s.

    It would be really neat to suggest that the ban on vernacular Bibles was a direct effect of printing, which allowed the merely well-off to buy books for private use instead of just the very rich. But it precedes the use of printing to produce books by a whole generation.

    (Just like the irritating way that mortality rates were falling in Britain in the 18th century – before the great scientific and medical advances of the 19th – the simple technological determinist explanation doesn't always work)

  10. This Is English, Rules Are Optional - World Literature Forum said,

    January 7, 2010 @ 3:44 pm

    […] – Jack Lynch Explores English – Review – This review is briefly discussed here Language Log Genzlinger on Lynch: "Who knew?" __________________ my blog […]

  11. Why preschool hasn’t saved the world said,

    October 28, 2012 @ 6:18 pm

    […] veers dangerously toward being yet another lament on linguists' (and other scholars') failure to educate the broader public, or the public's ignorance of anthropological knowledge, and that is not where I wanted it to […]

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