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.

The New Yorker cover May 14, 2012
The New Yorker cover May 14, 2012

Nature or nurture. Love it or leave it. If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.

If you didn’t already know that euphonious dichotomies are usually phony dichotomies, you need only check out the latest round in the supposed clash between “prescriptivist” and “descriptivist” theories of language. This pseudo-controversy, a staple of literary magazines for decades, was ginned up again this month by The New Yorker, which has something of a history with the bogus battle. Fifty years ago, the literary critic Dwight Macdonald lambasted the Third Edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary for aiming to be “a recording instrument rather than … an authority” and insufficiently censuring such usages as “deprecate” for depreciate, “bored” for disinterested, and “imply” for infer. And in a recent issue, Joan Acocella, the magazine’s dance critic, fired a volley of grapeshot at the Fifth Edition of the American Heritage Dictionary and at a new history of the controversy by the journalist Henry Hitchings, The Language Wars. Acocella’s points were then reiterated this week in a post by Ryan Bloom on the magazine’s Page-Turner blog. The linguistic blogosphere, for its part, has been incredulous that The New Yorker published these “deeply confused” pieces. As Language Log put it, “Either the topic was not felt to be important enough to merit elementary editorial supervision, or there is no one at the magazine with any competence in the area involved.”

According to the sadly standard dichotomy, prescriptivists believe that certain usages are inherently correct and others inherently incorrect, and that to promote correct forms is to uphold truth, morality, excellence, and a respect for the best of our civilization. To indulge incorrect ones, meanwhile, is to encourage relativism, vulgar populism, and the dumbing down of literate culture.

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Descriptivists, according to this scheme, believe that norms of correctness are arbitrary shibboleths of the ruling class, designed to keep the masses in their place. Language is an organic product of human creativity, and the people should be given the freedom to write however they please.

These antagonists, to be sure, are not made entirely out of straw. A few tenured radicals (mostly obscure) are full-strength descriptivists, and a few crotchety critics (such as the late Macdonald, as well as John Simon and Jacques Barzun) are avowed prescriptivists. Yet most writers who have given serious thought to language are neither kind of iptivist, and react to such pigeonholing the way Alison Porchnik does in Annie Hall after Alvy Singer pegs her as “New York Jewish left-wing intellectual, Central Park West, Brandeis University, socialist summer camps” and so on. (“That was wonderful,” she says. “I love being reduced to a cultural stereotype.”) Among the Porchniks are the late, allegedly prescriptivist style mavens Henry Fowler, E.B. White, and William Safire, and such allegedly descriptivist writers on language as Hitchings, Lane Greene, John McWhorter—and me.

The thoughtful, nondichotomous position on language depends on a simple insight: Rules of proper usage are tacit conventions. Conventions are unstated agreements within a community to abide by a single way of doing things—not because there is any inherent advantage to the choice, but because there is an advantage to everyone making the same choice. Standardized weights and measures, electrical voltages and cables, computer file formats, the Gregorian calendar, and paper currency are familiar examples.

The conventions of written prose represent a similar kind of standardization. Countless idioms, word senses, and grammatical constructions have been coined and circulated by the universe of English speakers, and linguists capture their regularities in the “descriptive rules”—that is, rules that describe how people speak and understand. A subset of these conventions has become accepted by a virtual community of literate speakers for use in nationwide forums such as government, journalism, literature, business, and academia. These are “prescriptive rules”—rules that prescribe how one ought to speak and write in these forums. Examples include the rules that govern agreement and punctuation as well as fine semantic distinctions between such word pairs as militate and mitigate or credible and credulous. Having such rules is desirable—indeed, indispensable—in many arenas of writing. They lubricate comprehension, reduce misunderstanding, provide a stable platform for the development of style and grace, and credibly signal that a writer has exercised care in crafting a passage.

Once you understand that prescriptive rules are conventions, most of the iptivist controversies evaporate. One such controversy springs from the commonplace among linguists that most nonstandard forms are in no way lazy, illogical, or inferior. The choice of isn’t over ain’t, dragged over drug, and can’t get any over can’t get no did not emerge from a weighing of their inherent merits, but from the historical accident that the first member of each pair was used in the dialect spoken around London when the written language became standardized. If history had unfolded differently, today’s correct forms could have been incorrect and vice-versa. 

But the valid observation that there is nothing inherently wrong with ain’t should not be confused with the invalid inference that ain’t is one of the conventions of standard English. Dichotomizers have difficulty grasping this point, so I’ll repeat it with an analogy. In the United Kingdom, everyone drives on the left, and there is nothing sinister, gauche, or socialist about their choice. Nonetheless there is an excellent reason to encourage a person in the United States to drive on the right: That’s the way it’s done around here. 

Another controversy may be extinguished by a realization that the conventions of linguistic usage are tacit. The rules of standard English are not legislated by a tribunal but emerge as an implicit consensus within a virtual community of writers, readers, and editors. That consensus can change over time in a process as unplanned and uncontrollable as the vagaries of fashion. No official ever decided that respectable men and women were permitted to doff their hats and gloves in the 1960s or to get pierced and tattooed in the 1990s—nor could any authority with powers short of Mao Zedong have stopped these changes. In a similar manner, centuries of respectable writers have shrugged off long-forgotten edicts by self-appointed guardians of the language, from Jonathan Swift’s denunciation of banter, mob, and sham to Strunk and White’s disparaging of to personalize, to contact, and six people (as opposed to six persons). 

Lexicographers have always understood this. As Johnson wrote, “to enchain syllables, and to lash the wind, are equally the undertakings of pride, unwilling to measure its desires by its strength.” And so lexicographers have always decided what goes into a dictionary by paying attention to the way people use words. In resigning themselves to this role they are, as John McIntyre once suggested, acknowledging the wisdom of Thomas Carlyle’s reply to Margaret Fuller’s statement, “I accept the universe.” “Gad! She’d better.”

And yet when Macdonald was writing in The New Yorker half a century ago, he fulminated against the policy of Webster’s Third to define words as most people used and understood them, such as “nauseated” as the primary sense of nauseous. (Note to readers under the age of 75: According to an old prescriptive rule, nauseous may be used only to mean “nauseating.”) Even if nine-tenths of the citizens of the United States were to use a word incorrectly, MacdDonald declared, the remaining tenth would be correct—he did not say by what criterion or on whose authority—and the dictionary should back them up. But a dictionary that followed Macdonald’s advice would be as useless in practice as the Hungarian-English phrasebook in the Monty Python sketch that translated “Can you direct me to the train station?” as Please fondle my bum.

Although dictionaries are powerless to prevent linguistic conventions from changing, this does not mean, as dichotomists fear, that they cannot state the conventions in force at a given time. That is the rationale behind the American Heritage Dictionary’s Usage Panel—which I chair—a list of 200 authors, journalists, editors, academics, and other public figures whose writing shows that they choose their words with care. Every year they fill out questionnaires on pronunciation, meaning, and usage, and the Dictionary reports the results in Usage Notes attached to entries for problematic words, including changes in repeated ballotings over the decades. The Usage Panel is meant to represent the virtual community for whom careful writers write, and when it comes to best practices in usage, there can be no higher authority than that community.

The powerlessness of dictionaries to freeze linguistic change does not mean that they are doomed to preside over a race to the bottom. Macdonald worried that the dictionaries of 1988 would list without comment the solecisms mischievious, inviduous, and nuclear pronounced as “nucular.” We now have an additional quarter of a century to test his predictions. Look them up. 

And now we come to the biggest and most bogus controversy of them all. The fact that many prescriptive rules are worth keeping does not imply that every pet peeve, bit of grammatical folklore, or dimly remembered lesson from Miss Grundy’s classroom is worth keeping. Many prescriptive rules originated for screwball reasons, impede clear and graceful prose, and have been flouted by English’s greatest writers for centuries. The most notorious is the ban on split verbs (including split infinitives), which led Chief Justice and grammatical stickler John Roberts to precipitate a governance crisis in 2009 when he unconsciously edited the oath of office and had Barack Obama “solemnly swear that I will execute the office of president to the United States faithfully” (rather than “faithfully execute,” the wording stipulated in the Constitution). Bogus rules, which proliferate like urban legends and are just as hard to eradicate, are responsible for vast amounts of ham-fisted copy editing and smarty-pants one-upmanship. Yet when language experts try to debunk the spurious rules, the dichotomizing mindset imagines that they are trying to abolish all standards of good writing. It is as if anyone who proposed repealing a stupid law, like those on miscegenation or Sunday store closings, was labeled an anarchist. 

What about those who say that correct usage is really a membership card for the ruling classes? In earlier centuries there was some truth to this notion, as Hitchings documents in his engaging history, but today that would be a stretch. Define the 1 percent however you want—the upper echelons of commerce, government, culture, academia, even the British royal family—and you’d be hard-pressed to argue that they are paragons of correct usage and good style. For quite some time now the language connoisseurs have been schoolteachers, writers of letters to the editor, and ink-stained wretches on Grub Street (and their digital descendants). 

*    *    *

Standards of usage, then, are desirable, even if all of them are arbitrary and mortal and many of them are spurious and discardable. And yet this understanding, widely shared among knowledgeable writers on language, is no match for a good dichotomy—particularly when it furnishes the narrative for an extended snark. Which brings us to the other bookend in The New Yorker’s participation in “the language wars,” in which Joan Acocella tortures quotations from several writers so she can mock them as prescriptivist toffs or descriptivist bohos. 

The stereotyping begins with her treatment of Henry Watson Fowler, author of the 1926 classic A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, and his campaign against “genteelism” in writing. 

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.

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: 

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.

*    *    *

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.

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