Any mention of The Elements of Style (1959) sends this blogger's gaze to his nearest bookcase. There on the second shelf at the far right side is "the little book" that has been with this blogger since 1962. If this is (fair & balanced) weepy nostalgia, so be it.
[x New Yorker]
The English Wars
By Joan Acocella
Tag Cloud of the following article
For a long time, many English speakers have felt that the language was going to the dogs. All around them, people were talking about “parameters” and “life styles,” saying “disinterested” when they meant “uninterested,” “fulsome” when they meant “full.” To the pained listeners, it seemed that they were no longer part of this language group. To others, the complainers were fogies and snobs. The usages they objected to were cause not for grief but for celebration. They were pulsings of our linguistic lifeblood, proof that English was large, contained multitudes.
The second group was right about the multitudes. English is a melding of the languages of the many different peoples who have lived in Britain; it has also changed through commerce and conquest. English has always been a ragbag, and that encouraged further permissiveness. In the past half century or so, however, this situation has produced a serious quarrel, political as well as linguistic, with two combatant parties: the prescriptivists, who were bent on instructing us in how to write and speak; and the descriptivists, who felt that all we could legitimately do in discussing language was to say what the current practice was. This dispute is the subject of The Language Wars: A History of Proper English (2011), by the English journalist Henry Hitchings, a convinced descriptivist.
In England, the most important and thorough prescriptivist volume of the twentieth century was A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, written by H. W. Fowler, a retired schoolteacher, and published in 1926. Its first edition is seven hundred and forty-two pages long, and much of it has to do with small questions of spelling and pronunciation. Fowler’s true subject, however—his heart’s home—is a set of two general principles, clarity and unpretentiousness, that he felt should govern all use of language. The book’s fame derives from the articles he wrote in relation to those matters—“genteelism,” “mannerisms,” “irrelevant allusion,” “love of the long word,” to name a few. Fowler defines “genteelism” as “the substituting, for the ordinary natural word that first suggests itself to the mind, of a synonym that is thought to be less soiled by the lips of the common herd, less familiar, less plebian, less vulgar, less improper, less apt to come unhandsomely betwixt the wind & our nobility.” As is obvious here, Fowler was dealing not just with language but with its moral underpinnings, truth and falsehood. To many people, he seemed to offer an idealized view of what it meant to be English—decency, fair play, roast beef—and to recommend, even to prescribe, those things. Accordingly, Hitchings deplores the book.
England did not. A Dictionary of Modern English Usage sold sixty thousand copies in its first year. Its most famous descendant was George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language.” Published just after the Second World War—that is, just after most of the world had been nearly destroyed by ideologues—the essay said that much political language, by means of circumlocution and euphemism and other doctorings, was “designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable.” (Orwell repeated the point three years later, in 1984.) Orwell was thus the most urgent prescriptivist possible. To him, our very lives depended on linguistic clarity. Hitchings nods at Orwell respectfully but still has questions about the campaign for plain English to which the great man contributed so heavily.
What the plain-English manifestos have been to Britain, The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr., and E. B. White, is to the United States. Strunk was an English professor at Cornell, and The Elements of Style began life as a forty-three-page pamphlet that he wrote in 1918 and distributed to his students in the hope of reforming what he saw as their foggy, verbose, and gutless writing. His goals were the same as Fowler’s: clarity and unpretentiousness. He also had a mania for conciseness.
A year after the pamphlet appeared, E. B. White, the twenty-year-old son of a piano manufacturer, enrolled in Strunk’s course. After graduation, he forgot his professor’s manual for many years, during which time he became a professional essayist, renowned for his clarity and unpretentiousness. Then, one day, a friend from college sent him a copy of Strunk’s pamphlet, thinking that it might amuse him. Impressed by his old teacher’s wisdom, White agreed to revise the manual for readers of his own time. The volume, now widely known as “Strunk and White,” was published in 1959. It is not without faults: the passive voice, frowned on in the book, occurs eleven times just on page 16 of the fourth edition. Nevertheless, The Elements of Style is the most trusted style manual in the United States.
White appended an essay to the manual, “An Approach to Style,” which carried the question of usage beyond correctness, into art. After the book’s many pages of rules, he says that excellence in writing depends less on following rules than on “ear,” the sense of what sounds right. Also, White stressed morals even more than Fowler did. “Style takes its final shape more from attitudes of mind than from principles of composition,” he says. “This moral observation would have no place in a rule book were it not that style is the writer, and therefore what a man is, rather than what he knows, will at last determine his style.” In short, to write well, you had to be a good person.
Strunk and White, together with Fowler and, to some extent, Orwell, addressed their remarks to people who were of their own social class, or who at least had had an education similar to theirs. Hence their ease, their wit, and their willingness to prescribe. None of them had any interest in telling steelworkers how to use English. But in the middle of the twentieth century their prescriptivist assumptions came up against violent opposition, at least in the academic world. The newly popular theory of structural linguistics held, in part, that you couldn’t legislate language. It had its own, internal rules. The most you could do was catalogue them. A second important objection came from the reform politics of the late twentieth century. In a world changed by immigration, and intolerant of the idea of an élite, many people felt that prescriptive style manuals were exclusionary, even cruel. Why should we let some old Protestant men tell us how to write our language?
Also on the level of taste and tone, the books seemed to some readers—for example, Hitchings—provincial and small-minded. “The idea of Fowler,” he writes, “is part of that nimbus of Englishness that includes a fondness for flowers and animals, brass bands, cups of milky tea, net curtains, collecting stamps, village cricket, the quiz and the crossword.” The idea of Strunk and White, too, was a little discomforting. The book became a cult object. A ballet based on it, by Matthew Nash, had its New York première in 1981. Nico Muhly composed a song cycle on the subject, and performed it at the New York Public Library in 2005, in conjunction with the publication of Maira Kalman’s illustrated edition of Elements. In 2009, Mark Garvey, a journalist, brought out a book, Stylized: A Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, that quotes the correspondence between White and his publishers, reproduces testimonials by celebrated writers, and describes Garvey’s feelings—all his feelings—about the book: “I love its trim size. I love the trade dress of the 1979 third edition: The authors’ last names fill the top half of the honey-mustard cover in a stocky, crimson, sans serif typeface.” For some, such fetishism was a bit nauseating—and also clubbish. Strunk and White could be associated with what some readers saw as the pipe-and-slippers tone of The New Yorker, where White was a celebrated contributor for decades.
The crucial document of the language dispute of the past half century was Webster’s Third New International Dictionary [Web. III], published in 1961. This 2,662-page revised edition of the standard unabridged dictionary of American English was emphatically descriptivist. “Ain’t” got in, as did “irregardless.” “Like” could be used as a conjunction, as in “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.” Some of these items had appeared in the preceding edition of the unabridged Webster’s (1934), but with plentiful “usage labels,” characterizing them as slang, humorous, erroneous, or illiterate. In Web. III, usage labels appeared far less often; they bore more neutral names, such as “nonstandard” and “substandard”; and they were defined in subtly political terms. “Substandard,” the dictionary tells us, “indicates status conforming to a pattern of linguistic usage that exists throughout the American language community but differs in choice of word or form from that of the prestige group in that community.” Two examples that the dictionary gave of words acceptable throughout the American language community except in its prestige group were “drownded” and “hisself.”
On many sides, Web. III was met with fury. A number of readers had no memory of having heard “drownded” or “hisself” said by anyone, ever, prestigious or not. Some people—including the influential critic Dwight Macdonald, in an acidulous 1962 essay, “The String Untuned”—went so far as to accuse the editors of equivocating, misleading, and concealing, for political reasons. Even the middle-of-the-road Times ridiculed Web. III. Rex Stout’s beloved detective Nero Wolfe threw the book into the fire because of its failure to distinguish between “imply” and “infer.” This was the closest thing to a public scandal that the quiet little world of English-language manuals had ever seen.
Out of it a new lexicon was born: the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language [A.H.D.], published in 1969. The A.H.D. was a retort to Web. III. It was unashamedly prescriptive and also, strictly speaking, élitist. In the words of its editor, William Morris, the book was written to provide “that sensible guidance toward grace and precision which intelligent people seek in a dictionary.” Intelligent people, dictionary consulters: that’s not everybody. Still, A.H.D.’s makers did their best to keep the doors open. They had put together a “usage panel” of about a hundred people, mostly professional writers and editors, whom they consulted—indeed, they asked them to vote—on controversial words and phrases. The editors then arrived at their decisions, but for many words they added not just a usage label but also a usage “note,” giving the voting results, which were sometimes close. Here, for instance, is the entry on “ain’t”: “Nonstandard. Contraction of am not.” But this is followed by an eighteen-line usage note, saying that while “ain’t” is strongly condemned, “ain’t I” is a little more tolerable than “ain’t” combined with any other word. Actually, sixteen per cent of the panel thought that “ain’t I” was acceptable in speech. (Don’t try it in writing, though. Only one per cent approved this.) Such polling could be viewed as a preëmptive defense against a charge of exclusiveness, but it can also be seen as an attempt to purvey common sense, rather than snobbery or defensiveness, and, in the end, just to tell the truth. In every quarter of the society, there is an élite. Web. III tried to make that fact go away. The A.H.D. did not, but it also demonstrated that occupants of the upper tier often—even usually—disagreed. So this was an élite that you might be able to join. It didn’t have a secret code.
In making the case for the language as it was spoken, the descriptivists did one great service: they encouraged studies of the vernacular. Dictionaries of slang have been around for a long time. In 2010, the Bodleian Library, at Oxford, brought out what its editors claim is the first specimen, a 1699 volume entitled A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew, In its Several Tribes, of Gypsies, Beggers, Thieves, Cheats, &c.—“cant” means slang—whose author is listed only as B.E. I did not know, though I was glad to learn, many of its listings: “Louse-land” (Scotland), “Suck your face” (drink), “Hogen-mogen” (a Dutchman). The grandfather of twentieth-century slang books is considered to be Eric Partridge, whose Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (1937) shocked many people of the time. Since then, there have been national slang books, theoretical slang books, slang books covering tweets and texts and e-mails (Julie Coleman’s Life of Slang ). Two years ago, a new contestant lumbered into the field: Green’s Dictionary of Slang, a three-volume, six-thousand-page lexicon. It covers the street talk not only of England—home of the book’s author, the language scholar Jonathon Green—but of most other English-speaking countries, and of numerous subcultures within them: the gay, the incarcerated, the military, and so on. An important event in lexicography this year was the publication of the fifth and final volume of Joan Houston Hall’s Dictionary of American Regional English, with such items as “too yet” (also); “we-uns” (we, us); “toe jam,” in wide use; and the “toe social,” a party where the women stand behind a curtain, sticking their toes out beneath it, and the men, after appraising the toes, bid for a companion for the evening.
Unsurprisingly, sex is the richest contributor to slang. Jonathon Green claims to have found fifteen hundred words for copulation and a thousand each for “penis” and “vagina.” There have been books strictly limited to obscenity. Green wrote one, The Big Book of Filth (1999). More recent is Ruth Wajnryb’s Expletive Deleted (2005). Wajnryb breaks no ground in her discussion of the reasons for dirty talk: obscenity enhances your vivacity; it cements fellowship within the group doing the talking. But she does discuss ethnic variations. Arabic and Turkish, she says, are justly praised for elaborate, almost surrealist curses (“You father of sixty dogs”). Bosnians focus on the family (“May your mother fart at a school meeting”). Wajnryb gives generous treatment to the populations, such as the Scots and the African-Americans, who hold actual competitions of verbal abuse, and she offers memorable examples:
I hate to talk about your mother, she’s a good old soul,
She got a ten-ton pussy and a rubber asshole.
For many years, the filthiest word in English was “fuck.” Even the dauntless Partridge had to use “f*ck.” (In Norman Mailer’s 1948 war novel, The Naked and the Dead, the G.I.s use “fug.” In what may be an apocryphal story, Mae West, meeting Mailer at a party, said, “Oh, you’re the guy who can’t spell ‘fuck’!”) According to Wajnryb, “fuck” has ceded first place to “cunt.”
While most discussions of slang focus on the lower and lower-middle classes, the gentry, too, have their argot. “U and Non-U: An Essay in Sociological Linguistics,” written in 1954 by the scholar Alan S. C. Ross, was an early and notorious study of this. For many years, language manuals had provided double-column lists of correct and incorrect words. Ross and his colleagues offered parallel columns of upper-class (U) speech versus the speech of (non-U) middle-class people trying to attain, or pretend to, upper-class status. Here is a sample:
|House (a lovely)||Home (a lovely)|
|Awful smell||Unpleasant odor|
Some of the distinctions, such as “house” versus “home,” and “curtains” versus “drapes,” are still in force.
Note how well the non-U words conform to Fowler’s definition of genteelism: the choice of the fancier, rarer, or more euphemistic word. Americans have made their own contributions to non-U. Today, “discomfit” often turns up where “discomfort” should be.
Ross insisted that he did not endorse the U and non-U rules. He was a blameless professor at the University of Birmingham, and his essay was written for an obscure journal of philology in Helsinki. But it was swiftly leaped upon by people in England who did endorse such rules and were happy to talk about them. The essay was reprinted, in modified form, several times—for example, in Noblesse Oblige, a volume edited by Nancy Mitford. Here, various contributors added their own notes on U ways. Mitford told us that any sign of haste is non-U. Whenever possible, she said, she avoided airmail.
However descriptive Professor Ross’s intentions, his essay brings us to the obvious vice of the prescriptivists: many of them are indeed snobbish, as the descriptivists charge. The problem is not that they believe in the existence of élite groups—anyone who denies this is fooling himself—but that they are willing to scold us for not belonging to one. The novelist Kingsley Amis, who wrote a very Fowlerian manual called The King’s English (1997), instructed us that “medieval” was to be pronounced in four syllables, as “meedy-eeval.” To pronounce it in three syllables was “an infallible sign of fundamental illiteracy.”
Moving to a higher level, can we justly conclude that clear English is significantly related to moral worth? Unclarity, E. B. White says, is “a destroyer of life, of hope.” Such statements are intended, in part, as comical hyperboles, but how funny are they, in the end, since most people would like to be on the side of life and hope? It must be said that the writers in question are not oppressing the masses. No, the object of prescriptivist scorn is Ross’s non-U’s, the aspiring middle class. It is always rewarding, Amis writes, “to spot a would-be . . . infiltrator.” Amis’s father was a clerk in a mustard-manufacturing firm, so his pleasure in spotting arrivistes is understandable. But is it O.K.?
The descriptivists’ response to such statements is one of outraged virtue, and that is their besetting sin: self-righteousness. Hitchings sometimes casts himself as Candide, viewing with dismay the vile underbelly of the linguistic world. The rules are relative, he tells us. (Can it be?) They express the rule-makers’ social class, education, and values. (No!) Accordingly, they are also grounded in the rule-makers’ politics. (Really!) Having arrived at this last conclusion, the main point of his book, Hitchings ceases to be the shocked idealist and becomes an avenger. Purists are bullies, he writes. Even the soft-spoken language manuals are agents of tyranny. He says of Strunk and White’s restraint, “As with so much that masquerades as simplicity, it is really a cover for imperiousness.” Linguistic rigidity, he writes, is the product of its proponents’ “anxieties about otherness and difference.” You know what that means.
To support his points, Hitchings applies a great deal of faulty reasoning, above all the claim that since things have changed before, we shouldn’t mind seeing them change now. Usages frowned on today were once common. (Dr. Johnson split infinitives; Shakespeare wrote “between you and I,” and just about anything else he wanted.) Conversely, words considered respectable now were once decried. (Fowler took a firm stand against “placate” and “antagonize.”) And people have been complaining about the bad new ways, as opposed to the excellent old ways, for millennia. Why should we be so tedious as to repeat their error? Hitchings thinks that many of the distinctions that prescriptivists insist on—not just small things like “disinterested”/“uninterested” but big things like “who”/“whom”—“may already have been lost.”
It is not hard to see the illogic of this argument. What about the existence of a learned language, or a literary language? If Milton took from Virgil, and Blake from Milton, and Yeats from Blake, were those fountains dry, because they were not used by most people? As for the proposition that, if something was good enough for Dr. Johnson, it should be good enough for us, would we like to live with the dentistry, or the penal codes, or the views on race of Johnson’s time?
But the most curious flaw in the descriptivists’ reasoning is their failure to notice that it is now they who are doing the prescribing. By the eighties, the goal of objectivity had been replaced, at least in the universities, by the postmodern view that there is no such thing as objectivity: every statement is subjective, partial, full of biases and secret messages. And so the descriptivists, with what they regarded as their trump card—that they were being accurate—came to look naïve, and the prescriptivists, with their admission that they held a specific point of view, became the realists, the wised-up.
In the same period, the reformism of the sixties became, in some quarters, a stern, absolutist enterprise. Hitchings acknowledges the tie between political correctness (he calls it that) and the descriptive approach to language study. Faithful to his book’s thesis, he steps up to defend the enforcers, who were, he says, decent-minded people “demonized by the political right.” But he has a difficult time reconciling their views with his proclaimed anti-authoritarianism. Things get awkward for him as the book progresses.
Once you check his sources, things get worse. In the prescriptivists’ books, you will find that, contrary to Hitchings’s claims, many of them, or the best ones, are not especially tyrannical. Those men really wanted clear, singing prose, much more than rules, and they bent rules accordingly. White, addressing the question of “I” versus “me,” in The Elements of Style, asks, “Would you write, ‘The worst tennis player around here is I’ or ‘The worst tennis player around here is me’? The first is good grammar, the second is good judgment.” Kingsley Amis, for all his naughty jokes, is often philosophical, even modest. His preference for “all right” over “alright,” he tells us, is probably just a matter of what he learned in school. But it is Fowler, that supposedly starchy old schoolmaster, who is the most striking opponent of rigidity. In his first edition, he called the ban on prepositions at the end of a sentence “cherished superstition,” and said that those who avoid split infinitives at the cost of awkwardness are “bogy-haunted creatures.” Even more interesting is to watch him deal with matters of taste. One of his short essays, “vulgarization,” has to do with overusing a fancy word. It’s wrong to do this, he says, but “Nobody likes to be told that the best service he can do to a favourite word is to leave it alone, & perhaps the less said here on this matter the better.” This almost brings a tear to the eye. He doesn’t want people to lose face.
Nowadays, everyone is moving to the center. The big fight produced some useful discussions of linguistic history, including Guy Deutscher’s The Unfolding of Language (2005). These books, by demonstrating how language changes all the time, brought about some concessions on the part of the prescriptivists, notably the makers of the A.H.D.’s later editions. First, the editors changed the makeup of their advisory panel. (The original hundred advisers were not dead white men, but most of them were white men, and the average age was sixty-eight.) Some definitions were made more relativist.
Most important is that the editors tried to pull descriptivists over to their side. In the most recent edition, the fifth, they have not one but two introductory essays explaining their book’s philosophy. One is by John R. Rickford, a distinguished professor of linguistics and humanities at Stanford. Rickford tells us that “language learning and use would be virtually impossible without systematic rules and restrictions; this generalization applies to all varieties of language, including vernaculars.” That’s prescriptivism—no doubt about it. But turn the page and you get another essay, by the cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker. He tells us more or less the opposite. There are no rules, he declares. Or they’re there, but they’re just old wives’ tales—“bubbe-meises,” as he puts it, in Yiddish, presumably to show us what a regular fellow he is. And he attaches clear political meaning to this situation. People who insist on following supposed rules are effectively “derogating those who don’t keep the faith, much like the crowds who denounced witches, class enemies, and communists out of fear that they would be denounced first.” So prescriptivists are witch-hunters, Red-baiters. For the editors of the A.H.D. to publish Pinker’s essay alongside Rickford’s is outright self-contradiction. For them to publish it at all is cowardice, in service of avoiding a charge of élitism.
But the A.H.D.’s run for cover is not as striking as the bending over of certain descriptivists, notably Hitchings. Having written chapter after chapter attacking the rules, he decides, at the end, that maybe he doesn’t mind them after all: “There are rules, which are really mental mechanisms that carry out operations to combine words into meaningful arrangements.” We should learn them. He has. He thinks that the “who”/“whom” distinction may be on its way out. Funny, how we never see any confusion over these pronouns in his book, which is written in largely impeccable English.
No surprise here. Hitchings went to Oxford and wrote a doctoral dissertation on Samuel Johnson. He has completed three books on language. He knows how to talk the talk, but, as for walking the walk, he’d rather take the Rolls. You can walk, though. Ω
[Joan Acocella has written for The New Yorker since 1992 and became the magazine’s dance critic in 1998. She has written on dance, literature, and the arts for many publications, including the New York Times Book Review, Art in America, The New York Review of Books, and the Times Literary Supplement. She also is the author of Willa Cather & the Politics of Criticism (2000). Acocella received a B.A. in English from the University of California at Berkeley and a Ph.D. in comparative literature at Rutgers University. She received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1993.]
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Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves by Neil Sapper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Based on a work at sapper.blogspot.com. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available here.
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