Entry from March 27, 2014

Here we go again. Ezra Pound said that poetry is news that stays news. If so, the news that we don’t have to worry about our grammar anymore has got the Cantos beaten all hollow, as it has been making headlines since long before ol’ Ez kicked the bucket more than 40 years ago. The latest herald of these linguistic liberators is Tom Chivers of the Daily Telegraph, which headlined last week: "Are ‘grammar Nazis’ ruining the English language?" The answer is: not if he can help it. As the sub-head has it: "Split infinitives make them shudder and they’d never end a sentence with a preposition. But linguist Geoffrey Pullum has a message for all grammar pedants: you’re wrong." For someone purporting to pooh-pooh ideas of grammatical correctness, linguist Geoffrey Pullum (co-author of the massive Cambridge Grammar of the English Language) is awfully quick to be telling people that they’re "wrong."

The words "grammar Nazis" also appear in the article itself, also in quotation marks, though no attribution is given. From the sound of it, the phrase is Professor Pullum’s, since he is obviously not the man to be bothered by metaphorical overkill and is otherwise belligerent towards the sort of people — me included — who think it worthwhile to try to observe the old-fashioned rules mentioned in the sub-head, or to recommend that others might want to observe them. Tellingly, he compares himself to "American bigots" who say of America’s critics, " if you don’t like it, you can leave. So," he adds, "I want to say, if you don’t like Standard English the way it is, talk sump’in else. Don’t mess with our language. If you don’t like it, sod off. Talk French."

This is just one of the ways in which the learned prof shows that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Another is in setting against the "daft" or "ignorant" prescriptions of the grammatical Grundies what he regards as the unquestionable authority of "the real findings of scientific linguistics." That is an example of scientism, or making exaggerated truth-claims in the name of science in areas where science is of little or no relevance. For an excellent recent dismantling of scientism, see "Scientism in the Arts and Humanities"  by my colleague Roger Scruton in the Fall, 2013 number of The New Atlantis.

Writing, that is, is not a science but an art, and its "rules" are not the same kinds of things as the grammatical rules that Professor Pullum has spent his life trying to catalogue. The "rules" that tradition has distilled from the works of careful writers are not like the rules of agreement or conjugation that you have to learn about a language if you are not a native speaker. The rules about split infinitives or ending sentences with prepositions exist not because people don’t ordinarily do such things but because they do. They and many others less easily ridiculed are recommendations for elegance, subtlety and clarity in writing, which are qualities science has no means of measuring.

Professor Pullum is no stranger to the concepts of writerly decorum, noting, for instance, that the clause-initial use of whom, as in "Whom do you mean?" is "unbearably pompous." But he can hardly be justified in invoking the authority of science for that artistic judgment, which appears to be directed not so much against the construction itself as against kind of people who would be mindful of the old rules about sticking to the objective usage in such a context. "Pompous" is always a useful pejorative against people who cling to old ideas about "better" and "worse" or "educated" and "uneducated" usages. Such people, to the neo-Marxists of today’s academia, represent an oppressive class whose hegemony over our intellectual life has to be overthrown and obliterated by "science"-empowered would-be proletarians like themselves.

Like other revolutionaries, they pretend to champion producers (in this case, writers) over consumers (or readers) without recognizing that most of us are both. Writers should be free of the bonds wrought for them by the kind of pedant who demands a greater consideration for readers. Thus, if liberated writers want to use "literally" as a mere intensifier, for example, as so many people do nowadays, instead of meaning "not figuratively," Professor Pullum, seconded by the latest edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, thinks they should be free to do so, and readers left to guess at their meaning. If they want to use literally literally they should fear no infinite regress in simply saying so. How they are to know that literally has any other meaning than the now popular and all but universally accepted one he does not say. Because language is often ambiguous, we should celebrate ambiguities rather than trying to obliterate them.

A year and a half ago I wrote in The New Criterion (see "Lexicographic Lies" in the number of October, 2012) of the moral and intellectual dishonesty and chaos that have accompanied the permissive use of the word "lie," also validated by numerous dictionaries (though not, yet, by the OED), to mean "mistake." The emotional force of the word has outlived its meaning, with no end of mischievous consequences among those liberated from their scruples, linguistic, moral and political, by the likes of Professor Pullum and his willing stooges in the media who are always suckers for whatever newly new liberationist enthusiasm comes along. But more careful writers and readers may see how, once again, the promises of liberation made by the politically and "scientifically" adept are only the prelude to a new and far more irksome form of bondage.

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