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.

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What kind of fact are you looking up when you look up a word in the dictionary? A fact it certainly is. It is not just a matter of opinion that there is no such word as misunderestimated, that the citizens of modern Greece are Greeks and not Grecians, and that divisive policies balkanize rather than vulcanize society.

The point of the essay was to explore how prescriptive rules arise and how we can distinguish the bogus rules from the defensible ones. One cause of bogus rules, I suggest, is a phenomenon called pluralistic ignorance, a situation in which, e.g., no writer believes that split infinitives are really ungrammatical but everyone mistakenly believes that everyone else believes they are. I reviewed research showing that pluralistic ignorance can entrench itself when people fear censure for exposing it, as they did during witch hunts, Red scares, and other popular delusions. Acocella got distracted by the analogy, hallucinating the “clear political meaning” that “prescriptivists are witch-hunters, Red-baiters.” (As I wrote in a subsequent letter to The New Yorker, this is like reading an explanation of global warming and mounting an indignant defense of greenhouses.) Acocella then impugns the intellectual integrity of the dictionary’s editors, declaring that to publish my essay together with Rickford’s “is outright self-contradiction,” and “to publish it at all is cowardice, in service of avoiding a charge of élitism.”

Not since Saturday Night Live’s Emily Litella thundered against conserving natural racehorses and protecting endangered feces has a polemicist been so incensed by her own misunderstandings.

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All this raises an obvious question: What’s going on at The New Yorker? How could a magazine that cultivates a reputation for assiduous fact-checking publish a screed that is so filled with blunders, non sequiturs, and fanciful attributions? The article must have had something that resonated with the editors enough for them to have given it a pass. But what was it? 

One theory is that a magazine like The New Yorker, with its emphasis on formal correctness and its own house style—the most eccentric in the industry, with its diaeresis over the vowels in cooperate and reelect and so on—is bound to be touchy about matters of usage and the need to uphold standards. But another is that The New Yorker’s obtuse coverage of “the language wars” is symptomatic of the problems it has with science. 

The New Yorker cover March 10, 1962
The New Yorker cover March 10, 1962

In 1962, Macdonald repeatedly sneered at the “scientific” aspirations of Webster’s Third, such as the embrace of quantification, the separation of fact and value, and the theoretical tools of modern linguistics. “For what Geiger counter,” he asked, “will decide who is in fact educated or cultivated?” Fifty years later, this fear of the pocket-protected could be fortified by a theory: Acocella faults the descriptivists for not drinking the postmodernist Kool-Aid and failing to acknowledge “that there is no such thing as objectivity: every statement is subjective, partial, full of biases and secret messages.” At least the prescriptivists, “with their admission that they held a specific point of view,” are being honest about the whole thing.

And here we see a connection to The New Yorker’s attitude toward science, which might be called Postmodernism Lite. Aside from environmentalists and doctors, the magazine tends to treat scientists as a tribe with the rather quaint creed that progress in understanding the world is possible through rigorous theory and empirical discovery. In fact, the magazine likes to imply, they are just another set of factions struggling for power. Science lurches from paradigm to paradigm; ’twas ever so, and all journalists can do is—as the creationists say—teach the controversy. Thus we get a parallel universe in which prescriptivists and descriptivists have done battle for five decades with no clarification of theory and no advancement in our understanding, each side merely waging its own version of class warfare.

Steven Pinker is the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard. His books include The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, and The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. He was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world today.