Don't tell Sister Catherine William

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Dipping randomly into another one of Roy Peter Clark's Glamour of Grammar essays ("What the Big Bopper Taught Me About Grammar", 5/8/2008), I found this curious piece of revisionist intellectual history:

In our common culture, grammar has taken on at least three sets of meanings and associations. It still refers to the etiquette of writing and reading, the conventions that allow us to create a standard written English, the technical term for which, according to critic John Simon, is "grapholect."

This view of grammar is sometimes called "prescriptive," which is how I came to understand in 1959 (at the age of 11) that, when the Big Bopper sang "… but baby I ain't go no money, honey," he was using language in a way that would have gotten his ass kicked by Sister Catherine William. […]

Then, of course, along came "descriptive grammar," a movement that had the unmitigated gall (why is gall always unmitigated?) to sneak "ain't" in the dictionary, a discipline of language that could take into account the Big Bopper's nonstandard usage, including that surely double negative.

Underpinning this rebellion against Emily Post conformity was something called "transformational" or "generative" grammar, described by scholars such as Noam Chomsky, before he became a political critic and darling of the left.

This explanation evokes another common collocate for unmitigated, namely nonsense.

Neither Noam Chomsky nor generative grammar deserve any credit — or blame — for the concept of descriptive linguistics. In this matter, his generation of linguists simply followed the approach of their teachers, and their teachers' teachers, well back into the century before Noam was born.

The first clue that something has gone badly wrong with Prof. Clark's intellectual history is the business about descriptive grammar having the gall to "sneak ain't in [sic] the dictionary". This is a reference to the controversy over Webster's Third. This work was published in 1961, but the entry for ain't was probably written about a decade earlier, while Noam Chomsky was an unknown graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania. And the editorial policy of Webster's Third was set by Philip Babcock Gove, whose ideas were formed at Columbia, Harvard and Dartmouth in the 1920s and 1930s, following a tradition of English lexicography established more than century earlier:

Critics of the Third Edition believed that it was the responsibility of a dictionary to serve as a standard of correctness, to tell users what was right and what was wrong … Gove said that the job of the dictionary was to describe how people used language, not how they should use it, echoing the views expressed by Dean Richard Chevenix Trench in two famous papers on the deficiencies of English dictionaries. The papers (both read to the Philological Society in November 1857) greatly influenced the planning of the Oxford English Dictionary and English lexicography generally. Trench … called the lexicographer "an historian [of the language], not a critic" and explicitly warned his colleagues against repeating the mistake of the French Academy, which had sought to fix the language and prescribe a standard of correctness for the nation. [Herbert C. Morton, The Story of Webster's Third: Philip Gove's Controversial dictionary and Its Critics, CUP, 1994; p. 7]

One of Prof. Clark's better ideas is to "Look it up in the OED!". If he'd followed his own advice in this case, he'd have discovered that the OED's sense 3.b. for descriptive

Linguistics. Describing the structure of a language at a given time, avoiding comparisons with other languages or other historical phases, and free from social valuations; as in descriptive grammar, linguistics, etc. (Opp. normative, prescriptive, historical; cf. SYNCHRONIC a.)

has citations back to 1888, long before Noam's birth:

1888 H. A. STRONG tr. Paul's Princ. Hist. Lang. i. 2 Descriptive Grammar has to register the grammatical forms and grammatical conditions in use at a given date within a certain community speaking a common language.
1927 Mod. Philol. Nov. 217 (heading) Descriptive linguistics. Ibid. 218 Today descriptive linguistics is thus recognized beside historical, or rather as precedent to it.
1933 JESPERSEN Ess. Eng. Gram. i. 19 Descriptive grammar..aims at finding out what is actually said and written by the speakers of the language investigated.
1947 E. H. STURTEVANT Introd. Ling. Sci. vi. 51 Descriptive linguistics forms the basis for historical linguistics. Ibid. 53 Most of our school grammars must be classed as descriptive.
1953 J. B. CARROLL Study of Lang. ii. 16 Several Greek grammarians, notably Dionysius Thrax, Apollonius Dyscolus, and Herodian, developed descriptive grammars of Greek.
Ibid. 19 The European linguist who best formulated the methodology of descriptive linguistics..was Ferdinand de Saussure.

Beyond the merely terminological issue, Prof. Clark must surely know that the concept of grammar as a description of usage — though perhaps geographically, socially and culturally specific usage — goes back several thousand years; and that Horace in particular famously asserted that usage controls "the law and the standard of language" (et ius et norma loquendi).

And if Prof. Clark had thought for a moment before banging out this essay, I bet he would have remembered that quotation — after all, William Safire wrote a book entitled "In Love with Norma Loquendi". The problem, thoughout these Glamour of Grammar essays, seems to be precisely that Clark writes before he thinks — and doesn't think after he writes, either. He apparently doesn't care whether or not what he writes is true, or even coherent, as long as it sounds good to him.

In that sense, his thoughts on this topic — or at least the samples that I've seen so far — are neither prescriptive grammar nor descriptive grammar, but rather, in the technical sense of the word, bullshit grammar. And while I never met Sister Catherine William, I bet that she was even less tolerant of bullshit than she was of double negatives.


  1. Mark Liberman said,

    July 5, 2008 @ 3:59 am

    In order to make it clear that I mean the term bullshit in its technical or philosophical sense, here is a definitional passage from Harry Frankfurt's monograph on the subject:

    What bullshit essentially misrepresents is neither the state of affairs to which it refers nor the beliefs of the speaker concerning that state of affairs. Those are what lies misrepresent, by virtue of being false. Since bullshit need not be false, it differs from lies in its misrepresentational intent. The bullshitter may not deceive us, or even intend to do so, either about the facts or about what he takes the facts to be. What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise. His only indispensably distinctive characteristic is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to.

    This is the crux of the distinction between him and the liar. Both he and the liar represent themselves falsely as endeavoring to communicate the truth. The success of each depends upon deceiving us about that. But the fact about himself that the liar hides is that he is attempting to lead us away from a correct apprehension of reality; we are not to know that he wants us to believe something he supposes to be false. The fact about himself that the bullshitter hides, on the other hand, is that the truth-values of his statements are of no central interest to him; what we are not to understand is that his intention is neither to report the truth nor to conceal it. This does not mean that his speech is anarchically impulsive, but that the motive guiding and controlling it is unconcerned with how the things about which he speaks truly are.

    It seems clear to me that even by journalistic standards, Roy Peter Clark's account of where "descriptive grammar" came from is so factually careless that it deserves to be called bullshit in Frankfurt's sense.

  2. dr pepper said,

    July 5, 2008 @ 5:00 am

    1. Is Webster's Third.the one that Nero Wolfe burnt because of its entry for "infer"?

    2. Is anyone reporting this back to Roy Peter Clark?

  3. Morgan said,

    July 5, 2008 @ 7:12 am

    Are we sure he's being serious? That paragraph sounds like nothing so much as an excerpt from Dave Barry Slept Here: A Sort-of History of the United States to me.

  4. Drew said,

    July 5, 2008 @ 9:00 am

    Well, whether he claims common lineage with Dave Barry or Sister Catherine William or both, I think he's got his bases covered here:

    "You're writing a book about grammar?" asked a friend.

    "Not just grammar."

    "So what else?"

    "All the language knowledge inside my head."

    "You're writing a book about the inside of your head?"


  5. mgh said,

    July 5, 2008 @ 6:48 pm

    After reading the complete Clark post, I'm not going to defend him. But for whatever it's worth, I don't read his entry to say that descriptive linguistics was introduced by Chomsky ("underpinning" can refer to reinforcing an existing structure), and I'm not sure Mark's history of descriptive linguistics as a professional term refutes Clark's statement about when descriptive grammar became a part of "common culture" (if that's what he's saying — he seems to me to be writing only about his own personal awareness of descriptive grammar, apparently sometime after 1959). But mostly I'm concerned that Mark's entries, which are often fun and informative, may be taking on a darker streak since around the time comments were introduced on Language Log! The lengthy (and personal) denunciations of this writer seem out of proportion to his errors.

  6. Mark Liberman said,

    July 5, 2008 @ 7:50 pm

    I'm sure that Dr. Clark is an excellent writing coach, and as usual, I feel that the linguistic ignorance of most intellectuals is mainly the the fault of the profession of linguistics at large.

    But it does seem to me that people who are in the business of informing the public have a duty to do some elementary fact checking. Associating Noam Chomsky with the Webster's Third controversy is really bizarre, roughly like associating Lyndon Johnson with the introduction of the income tax. I guess that I might have done better to find a way to poke fun at Clark politely, but I was short on time, and disposed in any case to describe BS straightforwardly as BS.

  7. language hat said,

    July 5, 2008 @ 8:34 pm

    mgh, I assure you that lengthy denunciations have been a regular feature on the Log since the beginning, and a good thing too, considering the amount of idiocy that's accepted by the populace at large. I'm quite sure it has nothing to do with the comment function.

  8. Tom Pollard said,

    July 5, 2008 @ 9:01 pm

    I agree that the tone of the criticism here is uncomfortably harsh, but (for my part) being exposed to Harry Frankfurt's monograph on bullshit more than compensates. Thanks for that!

  9. Mark A. Mandel said,

    July 5, 2008 @ 10:12 pm

    As it happened, on my LiveJournal friends page the second post below this one was a FilkArchive notice of a new song titled "Hail to Thee, O English-Usage Purist". The song notes:

    Lyricists: Kate Gladstone
    Composers: traditional, Irish – "Irish Rover"
    Performers: Kate Gladstone
    Inspiration: rebutting Eric Bogle's song "The Old Mother Tongue"
    Recorded at: home
    Notes: Eric Bogle's song "The Old Mother Tongue" decries the changing meanings of "gay" and other words. I carried his complaint to its logical conclusion.

    The FilkArchive requires a login (free, and no spam), but the lyrics are available at
    The Bogle song lyrics are at

  10. sandra wilde said,

    July 6, 2008 @ 12:09 am

    Omigod! Re:

    "You're writing a book about grammar?" asked a friend.
    "Not just grammar."

    I'm currently writing a book with the title "Not Just Grammar." I'm not a linguist but an education professor and the book is for teachers of grades 3-8. I've just recently started reading LanguageLog regularly.My focus is on what I'm calling linguistics as a subject area for kids; some attention about how to address (or often not address) traditional school grammar and usage topics, plus also language-related topics to explore with kids, such as "Did Koko really learn language?" I hope it's not too off-topic for me to mention my book project here. I'm of course terrified that I'll include something uninformed in the book like this Clark guy is doing in his.

  11. John Cowan said,

    July 6, 2008 @ 2:25 am

    Dr. Pepper: the answer to your first question is yes.

  12. Le Petomane said,

    July 6, 2008 @ 6:41 am

    Mark Lieberman said: "I'm sure that Dr. Clark is an excellent writing coach …"

    You might want to read this before making that assertion:

    Dreadful stuff.

    For example, there's this from the third paragraph of the prologue:

    "Mick was born in '39 and died in '93. Like those numbers, their marriage had been turned around and divided."

    This is prototypical bad journalism. It sounds good; it means nothing.

    The prologue is followed by 29 chapters of equally bad writing before you reach the epilogue and the postscript. It is a sob story, badly told. Since Poynter extols Dr. Clark as "a teacher who writes, and a writer who teaches," and since we know that he doesn't write very well, I would be inclined to withhold judgment on his teaching skill until some evidence is adduced to demonstrate that it exists.

  13. Dan S. said,

    July 6, 2008 @ 11:58 am

    "My focus is on what I'm calling linguistics as a subject area for kids; some attention about how to address (or often not address) traditional school grammar and usage topics, plus also language-related topics to explore with kids,"

    Ooh ooh ooh!

    As a former (all too quickly burned out) middle school teacher, that sounds very exciting, and something I would've loved to have. Good luck!

  14. John Lawler said,

    July 6, 2008 @ 12:36 pm

    @Sandra: Bravo! A noble ambition. I"ve always felt that kindergarten or first grade was the right place to start linguistics. Some resources you may find useful: Good Night Moon, in English phonemic transcription"Language Science", a term paper by a student of mine detailing how to introduce linguistics into the elementary curriculumFrequently Asked Questions about English, a bunch of newsgroup postsAsk a Linguist, an online service of the Linguist List (q.v.)Database and resources on English sound symbolism (e.g,
    st-, 1-Dimensional Rigid: stick, staff, stem, stand, stilt, stork
    -əmp, 3-Dimensional Convex: hump, lump, rump, bump, clump
    cf their combination stump)
    Keep on reading Language Log regularly; you have the right instinct.

  15. Neal Whitman said,

    July 7, 2008 @ 11:21 pm

    You might try contacting members of the LSA's Linguistics in the School Curriculum committee. I've also put up this page with links relevant to linguistics in primary and secondary education. When my regular computer is fixed, I'll add the items mentioned in the comments here.

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