Thursday, 10 June 2010

Style Wars - Part 2

There are two main schools of thought on grammar. To paraphrase, "descriptivism" studies how a language is, and " prescriptivism" is the view of some people on what it ought to be. This division surfaced recently in reaction to Gerald Warner's polemical piece in the Telegraph blogs, We need an Academy of English to save our beautiful language.

A number of language-related weblogs, such as BadLinguistics, have commented on it. I can't add much, except to note that Mr Warner's views - a conflation of multiple peeves about what seems to him the decline of language and decline of culture - are exactly those addressed by Geoffrey Pullum in his 2004 paper Ideology, Power, and Linguistic Theory. Pullum argues for the existence of explicit connections between prescriptivism and a conservative authoritarian agenda:

The clearest fact about the spirit of the regulative rules the prescriptive ideologues advance is that they are genuinely linked to conservative ideology: the mistrust of ordinary people and the pessimism about what they would get up to if left to their own devices is palpable. This makes it not so surprising that, as Geoff Nunberg 2 has observed, attention to grammatical correctness correlates to some extent with contempt for liberal-style political correctness.

- Ideology, Power, and Linguistic Theory (revised text of a presentation, annual meeting of the Modern Language Association, December 30, 2004).

The thrust of the paper is to address an unresolved clash of perceptions that has existed for over a century. Despite advances in linguistics, Pullum says, linguistically uninformed views inherited from the 19th century and earlier

... dimly grasped and often misunderstood, nonetheless form the backbone of what the general public understands and believes about English grammar.

Whatever the psychology may be, the specific origins of prescriptivism in English are interesting, and even make it an understandable stance for the time when it arose. A very nice paper, The Rise of Prescriptivism in English (Dr. Shadyah A. N. Cole, Um Al-Qura University Journal Of Educational and Social Sciences and Humanities, Vol. 15- No.2 – Jumad I 1424H. July 2003) traces the roots to the growth of the middle classes and an ethos of scientific rationalism in the late 1600s onward.

Pundits of that time knew classical Latin and Greek, which both had tight well-defined grammars, but when they found English was a mess in comparison, they assumed that it had "decayed". Furthermore, it was rapidly and actively altering: Shakespeare and his contemporaries were rapidly coining additions such as the many "inkhorn terms". Given that theory, attempts to shore up English with a similar structure, to protect it against imports and neologisms, don't look so arbitrary. Cole likewise shows neatly the historical roots of current features of prescriptivism in the prevailing social/political climate, such as the growth of the middle classes (for whom one index of betterment was language that distinguished them from the working class).

A handful of writers such as George Campbell (The Philosophy of Rhetoric, 1776) and Joseph Priestley 1(The Rudiments of English Grammar, 1772) took an essentially modern linguistic view of basing their descriptions of grammar on current best usage. But the majority made their own aesthetic judgements, dissing in their books, and in whatever venues they could find (see Swift's whinge to the Tatler 3), bits of current idiom they disliked. These got incorporated into later grammar texts, and by the 20th century, English was left with a legacy of many prescriptive rules of grammar that were the result of accretion of such arbitrary opinions.

Judging by the controversy over Professor Pullum's earlier commentary on Strunk & White (see  Style Wars - Part 1), Americans have had a particular booster dose of presecriptivism over the 20th century. Things have been less hard-line in the UK, as even the prescriptive guides of 20th century Britain were iconoclastic in some areas. When I started writing, I recall reading Gowers' excellent The Complete Plain Words (1954); no-one could mistake this for a general guide to style, as its target is the particular obfuscatory writing of post-WW2 civil servants. Nevertheless, its Correctness section comes across as pretty enlightened in its openness to coining and importing new words, and Gowers was well aware of the arbitrary nature of individual views on correctness:
One has only to look at the words proposed by Swift for inclusion in his Index Expurgatorius 3 to realise how difficult, delicate and disappointing it is to resist new words and new meanings. He condemns, for instance, sham, banter, mob, bully and bamboozle. A generation later Dr. Johnson called clever a "low word" and fun and stingy "low cant". Should we not have been poorer if Swift and Johnson had had their way with these?
Even more influential in the UK was Fowler's Modern English Usage (1926), which again has a relatively laid-back approach. While Fowler had its own set of prejudices, it nevertheless described as "superstitions" and "fetishes" many classic prescriptive diktats including those against starting sentences with "and" or "but", ending a sentence with a preposition, splitting infinitives, and the use of singular "none". Given the ubiquity and overall respect for Fowler, it's hard to see why its advice didn't become mainstream - except perhaps that a book aimed at adult writers never touched grammar teaching at school level.

I like to think the time has come for descriptive grammar to strike back. One point not mentioned in these analyses of the origins of prescriptivism is the role of access to information. In the 1700s - and in fact right up to a decade or less ago - it would take years of work to properly research the print occurrences of some disputed word or phrase. Such a situation made it relatively easy for any authority figure or persuasive writer to get their unsupported opinion enshrined as a rule, and very difficult to offer an informed riposte based on documented usage. It's refreshing, then, to see the latest and most authoritative guides to grammar, Pullum & Huddleston's the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language and its 'lite' version A Student's Introduction to English Grammar, to be completely descriptive in approach; the publicity led with its occasionally radical departure from trad grammatical diktats 4.

The beauty is, too, that anyone can be part of this. Professor Pullum's Prescriptive grammar in America: The land of the free and The Elements of Style) (scheduled for English Today, June 2010) contains an example of how Strunk & White gives grammatical advice that is flatly contradicted by usage.
The sentence None of us are perfect is given as an example of incorrect grammar; None of us is perfect is claimed to be the correction.

The arrogance here is breathtaking. None of us are perfect is a line from literature. It is uttered by Canon Chasuble in the second act of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), possibly the greatest of all stage comedies in English. It is absurd to suggest that Wilde didn’t know the rule of verb agreement, and surely false that he wanted to depict the learned Dr. Chasuble as unable to speak Standard English. White is simply stipulating a rule that doesn’t accord with Standard English usage, not even the usage that prevailed in his youth.

It is extremely easy to confirm this today, when hundreds of classic novels are available in readily searchable plain text at the Gutenberg Project site ...
Just so, and not merely within Gutenberg. As I've mentioned in a number of previous posts, now it's perfectly feasible even for a lay person to do a rough-and-ready corpus search by applying Google Books to the vast number of scanned texts online. For example, you can choose a time slot, say 1800-1820, and find occurrences of "none of us is" (40 hits) and "none of us are" (274 hits). You can do similar searches in Google News: for instance, between 1990-2010 for "none of us is" (96,500 hits) and "none of us are" (168,000 hits).

It's crude, but the raw analytical power is amazing; and the results of such searches can very often demolish the authority of the more mutton-headed prescriptivist claims, revealing them for what they are: unsupported asssertions that have been passed on, virus-like, down history.

The depressing thing is how difficult it is to get these non-rules out of the system. On Yahoo! Answers I frequently run into questions about them by school students whose teachers are telling them, for instance, not to start sentences with "And" or "But". This is complete garbage. If Pullum & Huddleston (co-authors of the authoritative The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language) use the construct in their A Student's Introduction to English Grammar ...
But they also commonly condemn it as illogical.
... you can be sure it's OK. But what do you say to a student afraid that going against what their teacher says will lose them marks?

- Ray

1. The same Joseph Priestley as discovered oxygen (or was at least in the same queue as Scheele and Lavoisier).
2. The Bloody Crossroads of Grammar and Politics (Geoffrey Nunberg, New York Times, June 1, 2003) which tells of the growth since the 1960s of the factoid that sentences such as "Toni Morrison's genius enables her to create novels that arise from and express the injustices African Americans have endured" contain an error.
3. See Swift's letter to The Tatler (Number 230, 26 September 1710, original here) which is quite remarkable for the number of now-accepted words that he considered unacceptable. It's also interesting - consolation to those now worrying about neologisms - to see how many of his complained-of constructs - such as "agen" for "again" - haven't made it into English.
4. See Book's coauthor sets the record straight.

1 comment:

  1. I often have trouble communicating with teenagers, particularly African-American. I am almost sure that it because they they speak another language but that language does not contain different words; it is beset by a different grammar. I think most difficult is the "Copula Deletion" of Black English Vernacular. (see section 3.3 here.)

    on another note: "You be the Man."