Language, One More Time
Jerome Shea January 19, 2008 Weekend Wonk
Prescriptivists are often seen as obsessives with too much time on their hands. But we are all prescriptivists, rule enforcers, to an extent. These are not grand, all-out battles that we fight, however. “Skirmish” might be a better word. I will give you “on accident” with as much grace as I can muster but will fight to the death to preserve the downfall/pitfall/drawback distinction. I will join in the derisive laughter about split infinitives, but will get exceedingly shirty if you misuse the semicolon and the conjunctive adverb.
It was ever thus. I mentioned last week that the teacher does not want her student to appear to be a doofus, a simpleton. Mistakes can hurt you in others’ eyes. The first rule books, in the 18th century, were written to help the emerging middle class—which snapped them up—not embarrass itself in speech or writing. Circumstances change things, of course, as does audience. I would never let a freshman get away with the dreaded “sentence fragment” (a dependent clause or a phrase masquerading as an independent clause) and yet in these wonks I use fragments all the time, and with a grad student I might simply write, “Do you think this works, rhetorically?” It helps to know the rules before you start breaking them, and were I writing a sober—if not somber—academic treatise, my prose would reflect that. This is why style always trumps grammar. And should.
Another prescriptivist argument points to ignoring—and thus eventually losing—valuable distinctions. This is precisely what infuriates me about “one downfall of the Escalade…” Just yesterday, by the way, a newspaper reporter used “pitfall” when she clearly meant “drawback.” Aargh! A drawback is a lack or weakness that puts you at a disadvantage; a pitfall is a wonderful metaphor based on the classic elephant trap—something that stands ready to catch you unawares; and a downfall is something that happens to empires or tragic heroes, not to Cadillac SUVs. Trust me on this, ok, folks?
Finally, though, what comes across to me is the feeling that the writer simply did not care to take pains and to pay attention. (Isn’t “painstaking” a lovely word, and don’t you love the metaphor in “pay” attention?) It is shoddy work that I would not accept from a carpenter or a plumber, from a butcher, baker, or candlestick maker. Am I sounding sufficiently insufferable yet? I don’t mean to be holier than thou. I have spent my life working with words and sentences and I know that others don’t have that advantage (Ouch! Looks as if I have indeed just passed the insufferableness threshold!). One thing these weekly wonks have taught me is that mistakes slip through even though I proofread until my eyes bleed. But I do want to stomp out the most egregious offenses, and I make no apologies for that.
So: who owns the language, and is that a tough question or just a trick question? I think everyone owns it and no one owns it. Or maybe we each just rent it, and I don’t mean that flippantly. Our language, after all, is going to last much longer than any one of us, and there will come a time when Shea is of necessity past caring. Pitfall and drawback will have collapsed into downfall, alas, and it’s may have swallowed up its. But Shea and all the other passionate partisans will have fought the good fight. That’s all we can ask and all we can do.
If you still feel like a cat in a roomful of rocking chairs whenever you open your mouth or sit at your keyboard, know that there is help. We don’t have an academy like the French do, but there are good usage guides available. The Brits have always had H. W. Fowler. We Yanks for years had Wilson Follett’s Modern American Usage. Follett has been largely replaced by Bryan Garner’s book of the same name, with later editions entitled Garner’s Modern American Usage. I do recommend Garner’s book. He walks a tightrope between the conservative and the liberal, between permanence and change, that is a joy to watch.
Meanwhile, please watch your language. Thanks. See you next week.
Postscript: I began this series by taking the usual, almost obligatory, swipe at l’Academie Francaise and what seems to us their high-handed practice of dictating to the people what proper French is. This prompted a reply from M. Xavier Kreiss, “a London-based French journalist,” who pointed out the weakness of my examples and undertook a defense of that institution and its practices, a defense both persuasive and cordial. He noted that the Academy does not dictate (as if that were possible!) but does set standards and make new coinages which the francophone is free to adopt or not. I have seen the light, or at least a glimmer! Since then, Xavier and I have been lobbing emails (“courriels”) between London and Albuquerque. It has been great fun and I hope it continues.
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