Grammar Snobs and Slobs

At a meeting of our neighborhood organization, a woman was discussing a real-estate conflict and recommended finding “a disinterested person” to help mediate. I hadn’t been listening closely, but now I snapped to attention. After years of hearing people use “disinterested” to mean “uninterested,” finally I had encountered someone who used it right. My syntax soul mate! It was as if we were members of a small, secret club.

Nothing reveals your politics more starkly than the problem of grammar. I’m not talking Democrat or Republican politics, but rather a deeper temperamental bearing on order, tradition, and change. There’s an abiding split in language politics, and people inevitably fall on one side or the other. If you feel joyous communion with the woman who uses “disinterested” correctly, you’re almost certainly a prescriptive grammarian. If you glory in the latest fillip in the language, enjoy each new carry-over from hip-hop or game theory, and don’t wince at solecisms and deviations, you’re clearly a descriptivist.

Regarding language, prescriptive grammarians tell us what is supposed to be; descriptive ones tell us what is. How much are you bothered by “Why don’t you lay down on the bed?” Do you wince, in a nails-on-chalkboard way, when someone says “She gave it to Jerry and I?” Grind your teeth at “irregardless?” Have to suppress an urge to crack wise at “I literally lost my mind”? Feel frustration when someone launches a sentence with “As far as watching a football game…”, then never supplies the cognate “is concerned”? 

Or do you find such stickler stances schoolmarmish? Maybe you made your peace long ago with “hopefully”—or never really worried about it in the first place. And far from viewing the occasional split infinitive with alarm, perhaps you favor it as an effective way to really, really emphasize your point.

When it comes to the ever-evolving nature of language, are you holding the fort or enjoying the ride?

The truth is, both approaches pose philosophical problems: while one insists that language should never change or grow, the other implies that rules are unnecessary. Both are prone to excess. The unreflective prescriptivist is a tyrant or a snob, or both. My formidable 9th grade English teacher insisted that the word “impious” (from Edith Hamilton’s Mythology) be pronounced to rhyme with “skimpy-us,” and let us know that anyone who didn’t pronounce it that way was not only wantonly subverting a norm of civilization, but should be pitied as well—both a danger and a dunce. The extreme descriptivist, on the other hand, may be a kowtowing fadmonger in the grip of populist ardor, or simply a bit of a word slob—someone who believes that the only thing that matters is that you get what he’s saying, you know?  

Whichever side you’re on, it helps to recognize your Achilles’ heel. The thoughtful prescriptivist eventually has to accept that what he’s doing is futile, since grammar doesn’t lead, but follows: not a set of preordained rules, but a human invention created, ex post facto, to anatomize language. Yes, he believes that upholding standards will help maintain the beauty and suppleness of the language—and possibly guard against fuzzy thinking. But he knows that using grammar to capture the onward-rushing thing that is language is like trying to catch water with a net. What does it mean to be “right” when 95% of the people who actually use a word use it “wrong”? The truth is that “disinterested” is gradually acquiring equivalency with “uninterested,” and I doubt that I or anyone else in the secret club can stop it. At a deep level the prescriptivist’s effort is not merely grammatical, but personal and Proustian. Yes, he will cite dictionaries, but at root, his tirades are a cry of outrage at the passing of his era, with its particular way of sounding. All these archaic words and phrases being modified or discarded are his grammatical madeleines.

The descriptivist has his own problems. He may dismiss the effort to assert a standard language as mere prissiness, or as raw power—a dialect with an army and a navy, as the saying goes. Yet he still has to explain the magnificence of Shakespeare, whose genius presupposes a host of conventions first mastered and then brilliantly played with. And he has to acknowledge the demands of the job application letter. The descriptivist stumbles over the reality that in many situations, we do need standards. How do you live in a world without linguistic “shoulds”—playing tennis without the net, as Frost quipped. Finally, I can’t help noting that most highly articulate descriptivists—those who argue passionately for the anything-goes approach—typically don’t speak in an anything-goes way themselves. Politically allergic to hierarchy and normativity, they hear the nails on the chalkboard, but won’t admit it; they stifle the wince. They are snobs pretending to be slobs.  

In the end it’s best to acknowledge your default bias, accept its limits, and proceed with humility. My tendency is prescriptivist, so I try to stay open to change. I can tolerate certain jargony terms (“epic fail,” for instance), though not others (“we’re really efforting that.” Ugh.). Semi-reluctantly I’ve accepted “it really impacted me” (sounds like constipation, says a friend of mine), though I’m holding out against “growing the economy” (too business-speaky). I try to uphold some standards, even as I accept that such nonstandard utterances as “Every person has their own way of doing things” are here to stay, ratified by millions of people voting with their tongues. I try to stay calm.  

But now they are messing with the period. That’s right, the little dot that I’m about to type at the end of this sentence. In a front-page article, the New York Times reports that “the full-stop signal we all learn as children... is gradually being felled in the barrage of instant messaging that has become synonymous with the digital age,” and hints at its future disappearance.

A linguist quoted in the article comments that making the period optional allows it to be deployed emphatically, to convey annoyance, snark, or, well, finality. Consider, for instance, your response to friend who cancels something at the last minute. The linguist makes the point that “Fine.”—with the period—can signal that you are irked, where “Fine” or “Fine!” may suggest casual or conciliatory acceptance.

Well, maybe. But am I, are we, prepared for the period to become optional? I can’t help but rue the prospect of language reduced to the status of a minor good, jostling to market in the technology-driven cart, and the legacy of Shakespeare and Milton being shaped by WhatsApp and Twitter. To me it is unnerving and ominous to acknowledge that e-mail, whose abbreviations and formal stringencies once seemed so severe, now counts as a long form. I’m trying to suppress the schoolmarm in myself. But the period holds a special, fundamental place among punctuation marks. Where colons, dashes, and exclamation points are the decorative elements of sentence design, periods are the foundation. What kind of house will we build without them?  The driverless car, I’m getting used to the idea. The periodless sentence? Not so much.

Meanwhile, for the anxious or gloomy prescriptivist, there’s always the refuge and solace of humor. Consider the headline splashed across Page One in my local newspaper recently—“Psychiatrist: Offender is Now Stable”—followed the subhead: “Found Guilty by Reason of Insanity, Review Board Considers Man For a 2nd Release.”  

Watch out for those insane review boards!

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

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