And still they come

There seems to be no end to books proposing to fix people’s lives by fixing their “grammar” (in that all-embracing sense of grammar — my slogan is It’s All Grammar — that I frequently complain about), usually incorporating any number of factual errors and fallacious assumptions about language and language use and displaying at best regrettable, at worst harmful, shameful attitudes about linguistic variation and social life. I collect these things, usually trying to get them used, so as not to give financial suppport to the authors or their publishers.

Latest to heave into my view (hat tip from Elizabeth Daingerfield Zwicky) is Grammar Sucks: What to Do to Make Your Writing Much More Better, by Joanne Kimes with Gary Robert Muschla, as discussed in a guest blog on Sociological Images by Josef Fruehwald, a grad student in linguistics at Penn who blogs on language variation and language attitudes (among other things) here.

I think Fruehwald nails some points so well that I’m going to quote almost the entire piece.

The set-up:

I was walking through the University bookstore today to pick up beginning of the semester office supplies, when this book … caught my eye [front and back covers of Grammar Sucks reproduced here]

Back cover text:

Do you suffer from grammar phobia because…

  • You’re so used to IMing, you’ve forgotten how to write a normal sentence. :- )
  • You’ve started thinking in rap lyrics.
  • Last time you gave a report, your handout got you laughed out of the room.

Then the response:

What made this book seem blog-worthy to me is the not-so-subtle coded language used to refer to those speakers who the book cover authors (maybe not the book authors) feel are culpable for the degradation of language.  I want to consider the second point specifically: “…thinking in rap lyrics.”

Ok, of course not all rappers are black, but it is an art form that is so solidly identified with the African American community.. And, of course, they’re not really talking about “rap lyrics,” they’re talking about AAVE (African American Vernacular English). This is an offensive and transparently coded throwback to the linguistic inferiority of African Americans.

AAVE is a dialect of English just like all dialects, and has a fully articulated syntax, morphology and phonology. It is NOT a broken or mislearned form of the dominant dialect. [I admire Geoff Pullum’s essay on the subject, “African American Vernacular English is not Standard English with mistakes”, so much that I’ve made it available on my website, here.] And people certainly don’t speak AAVE because they failed to learn arbitrary writing conventions in school (e.g. “Don’t start a sentence with a conjunction”), which appear to be the topic of this book.

But, let’s take them at their word. Maybe you have grammar phobia because you’re thinking in rap lyrics. Do you mean, like, you’re freestyling in your head all the time? Do you mean you’re kind of like this guy? [wonderful clip of Mos Def freesyling]

You mean, all your thoughts have flow, and rhyme, are creative, and drop properly formed Spanish imperative verbs? To the book cover authors: you fucking wish. I mean, I wish I could do that. [If you take away only one piece of Fruehwald’s critique, this is the paragraph to treasure.]

In the context of the book, it makes a clear point: If you are young, and black (and your hat’s real low), you’re not worthy of social respect, or economic achievement.

Needless to say, I went on to go buy my office supplies, and didn’t read the body of the book. I can’t really tell you if it gave any good advice that made any sense. This book is just another case where supposed discussion of language isn’t really about language. It actually ties in nicely with my previous post on how people discuss language in terms of morality. Here, the book cover authors are laying blame on the same groups of people that are accused of leading moral decay: youth, and racial and ethnic minorities.

It’s amazing in a way that young women (those air-headed IMing chatterers) don’t get specifically slammed. But then this is just a book cover; maybe they get their measure of contempt inside the book. I’ll see. I’ve ordered a (used) copy, which should be along in a week or so.

10 Responses to “And still they come”

  1. F. Escobar C. Says:

    It’s difficult to see this sort of criticism without thinking about David Foster Wallace’s famous piece on the language wars (his lengthy review of the first edition of Garner’s usage dictionary). Wallace’s point would not be this: “If you are young, and black (and your hat’s real low), you’re not worthy of social respect, or economic achievement”; instead, DFW’s point would be that Standard Written English is used as, well, a standard for achievement and failing to conform to such a standard becomes a formidable roadblock in the path toward (or within) corporate hierarchies. To the authors of this book (or the advertising crew), it seems obvious that deviations from SWE are frowned upon by mainstream society. No matter the sense of wonder with which we embrace different forms of nonstandard language, it seems difficult to argue with that supposition. Of course, a harmful fallacy here lies in thinking that working within corporations (or even within the mainstream) is the only way toward wealth or success. All sorts of people, rappers included, disprove that every day. But it’s still useful to keep DFW’s point in mind. It all depends on what you want to do.

    Quick question, about an issue that will probably be part of the content of the book whose cover Fruehwald reviewed. At the beginning of the second excerpt from his review that you quoted, isn’t that who supposed to be a whom (i.e., here: “What made this book seem blog-worthy to me is the not-so-subtle coded language used to refer to those speakers who the book cover authors […] feel are culpable for the degradation of language”)?

    • Josef Fruehwald Says:

      Thanks for your comments! However, for your point:

      “[…] Standard Written English is used as, well, a standard for achievement and failing to conform to such a standard becomes a formidable roadblock in the path toward (or within) corporate hierarchies. To the authors of this book (or the advertising crew), it seems obvious that deviations from SWE are frowned upon by mainstream society. No matter the sense of wonder with which we embrace different forms of nonstandard language, it seems difficult to argue with that supposition.”

      I agree with you on these points, and take it further to say that failure to conform to the standard spoken language is also a considerable obstacle to economic achievement. But so are many other things, such as being a woman, or being a racial minority. Certainly the language you speak is more easily malleable than your physical sex or race, but the inherent inequality in the expectation that everyone should conform to the standard still stands. I am comfortably mono-dialectal, I have not had to exert any energy in mastering a second dialect, and no negative repercussions should come of it.

      On the who/whom note, I wouldn’t have been surprised if it was supposed to be “whom.” I really don’t have active case marking for “who.” “Whom” is more a marker of formal register than anything else for me., and I tend to blog in a more informal style. The only way I can keep the two straight is to call upon my explicit knowledge of wh-movement that I learned as an undergraduate linguistics major!

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Federico Escobar brings up a topic that Mark Liberman, Geoff Pullum, and I have written about again and again on Language Log, when we try to explain our objections to some of the material in the advice literature and to some writing that labels itself “prescriptivist”. The topic is too broad to cover in a comment, and, frankly, I’ve wearied of going over the same ground for more than a decade, but I’ll think about taking another stab at it here.

  2. Martyn Cornell Says:

    isn’t that who supposed to be a whom

    No, “those speakers who” are the subject of the verb phrase “are culpable”.

  3. Erik Zyman Carrasco Says:

    Quite tangentially, I initially interpreted the drop in drop properly formed Spanish imperative verbs as meaning omit instead of something like spout out. It’s almost a case of self-antonymy.

  4. F. Escobar C. Says:

    You’re right, Martyn. It was a longish verb phrase, and it’s the verb phrase itself, not the who, that acts as the predicate for the verb feel. Sorry about being careless enough to ask (plus, it’s an issue sufficiently well covered, with all its trappings exposed, by Garner in GMAU, “who; whom”, C. The Nominate whom).

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      There’s a long history of reports of (and objections to) two types of examples in which whom (or whomever) is used for the subject of an object clause — what I called ISOC (in-situ subject of an object clause) and ESOC (extracted subject of an object clause) in two Language Log postings, here and here. What Federico Escobar originally recommended was an ESOC whom (where who is prescriptively correct, as Martyn Cornell pointed out).

      Now there are (as Mark Liberman and Geoff Pullum have documented many times on Language Log) people who have come to treat whom(ever) as a mark of serious, highly formal English (of formal register, as Josef Fruehwald said in his comment), not as a structurally determined choice. But I suspect that Fruehwald is not such at person. I suspect that he would not commit things like “Whomever controls language controls politics” or “terrorists, whom captured, killed, enslaved millions of Africans” or other wonders reported on Language Log. But Fruehwald can speak for himself.

      In any case, there are people who use whom only when the pronoun is an in-situ object of a preposition (“To whom did you give the book?”) and, perhaps, when it’s an in-situ object of at verb (“You saw whom?”) — and not when the pronoun is an extracted object (“Who did you give the book to?” and “Who did you see?”). This is what I called System B, or the (now-) Standard System, in my postings.

      (There are also people who follow System B everywhere except in their most formal register, where they switch to System A, or the Prescriptive System, in which whom is used for objects of all sorts. Call this System B/A. My guess is that this is Fruehwald’s system.)

      But there are also people who generally adhere to System B or B/A or indeed A, but use whom for ISOC or ESOC or both. There are so many such people, some of them respected writers (and at least one of them an authority on English usage), that some of us who track these things have become unwilling to flatly label these usages as non-standard.

  5. The Ridger Says:

    I’m a B user myself, and it’s the one I recommend – simply because putting “who” where “whom” should be (except after a preposition) is both so common as to be nearly unnoticed and so widespread that if it is noticed, few will attempt to correct you, while putting “whom” where “who” should be exposes you to much more ridicule. Or so I’ve found…

  6. Object whom « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] Usage advice tends to be deaf to all these complexities and subtleties and to fall back on unexamined dogma about case marking. Take, for example, the treatment of who vs. whom in Grammar Sucks (hereafter, GS) by Joanne Kimes with Gary Robert Muschla (pp. 151-6), which I talked about in an earlier posting. […]

  7. It’s All Grammar « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] AZBlog, 2/13/11: And still they come (link) […]

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