Why the Rules of Language Are Both Arbitrary and Essential

Language and how we use it.
May 31 2012 6:50 AM

False Fronts in the Language Wars

Why New Yorker writers and others keep pushing bogus controversies.

(Continued from Page 2)

In fact, this is not obvious at all. What’s obvious is that Fowler was endorsing an unpretentious style, as every writing manual on both sides of the Atlantic has done ever since. The passage shows no trace of a concern with moral underpinnings, truth and falsehood, decency, fair play, or what it meant to be English, to say nothing of roast beef. 

E.B. White, co-author with William Strunk of the beloved Elements of Style and an American counterpart to Fowler, also gets the Porchnik treatment. As with the “many people” in Britain who connected Fowler with roast beef, Acocella speaks of “some readers” in America who associated White with “pipe-and-slippers” clubbishness. Neither stylist, she surmises, “had any interest in telling steelworkers how to use English.” She does not divine this lack of interest from anything they wrote, but from “their ease, their wit, and their willingness to prescribe,” qualities that we must assume are unappreciated by steelworkers. Acocella then excerpts White’s “moral observation” that “style takes its final shape more from attitudes of mind than from principles of composition” and his warning that unclarity is “a destroyer of life, of hope.” From these she derives his philosophy of style: “In short, to write well, you had to be a good person.” 

Could E.B. White, the genial chronicler of rustic life in Maine, and the author of the tender children’s classics Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, really be such a supercilious prig? Actually, the passages that Acocella excerpts are down-to-earth advisories, with no hint of the stuffy moralizing or contempt for the common man she attributes to him. The first encourages writers to trust their readers’ intelligence rather than patronizing them. The second spells out in concrete terms exactly how unclarity can destroy life and hope: “death on the highway caused by a badly worded road sign, heartbreak among lovers caused by a misplaced phrase in a well-intentioned letter, anguish of a traveler expecting to be met at a railroad station and not being met because of a slipshod telegram.”


This slaphappy attribution of class snobbery to prescriptivists continues with Acocella’s review of the American Heritage Dictionary, whose founding editor sought to provide “that sensible guidance toward grace and precision which intelligent people seek in a dictionary.” In what way is that elitist? Well, Acocella explains, consider the intended audience: “Intelligent people, dictionary consulters: that’s not everybody.” No, it isn’t, but one wonders what a dictionary would have to do to count as non-elitist by her standards—presumably appeal to unintelligent people who don’t consult dictionaries. 

The AHD poses other challenges to Acocella’s shoehorn. She classifies it as “unashamedly prescriptive,” which does not obviously jibe with its signature feature of reporting poll results from the Usage Panel and allowing readers to use them as they see fit. But what really flummoxes Acocella is the pair of essays in the front of the dictionary, one by the linguist John Rickford, a scholar of Caribbean creole languages and African-American English, the other by me. 

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.

No doubt about it? This is a howler of the first order, as anyone who knows Rickford, understands his essay, or simply reads his title (“Variation and Change in Our Living Language”) could figure out. Rickford protested to The New Yorker that the rules and restrictions he was referring to were descriptive, not prescriptive, but they declined to publish a correction. 

Acocella then turns to my essay:

[Pinker] 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.

The “regular fellow” insinuation advances the familiar class-warfare narrative, with the Yiddishism serving as the descriptivist counterpart to Fowler’s roast beef and White’s pipe and slippers. But the “presumably” is disingenuous: I introduced the term, as I explain in the essay, as a “tribute to William Safire, who called himself a language maven, Yiddish for ‘expert.’ ” In any case, the main accusation continues Acocella’s topsy-turvy understanding of linguistics. Far from declaring that there are no rules, or that all of them are bogus, the essay began from the opposite premise. Here are the opening sentences: