The scandal of English grammar

The main title of a talk that Geoff Pullum gave tonight (in competition with the State of the Union address), at the University of Washington (in Seattle). Subtitle: “Ignorance of grammar, damage to writing skills, and what we can do about it.”

It’s a topic that Geoff and Mark Liberman and I and others have railed about for years and years.

The abstract:

The grammar instruction that survives in modern America amounts to little more than uncritical repetition of 200-year-old classifications that make little sense, plus a few lists of unexplained prohibitions: Don’t do that, this is an error, beware of the passive. Worse, those who purport to know English grammar use it primarily to nitpick: The surprising and engrossing business of exploring sentence structure is perverted into a source of cheap points in a game of Gotcha. The victims of this grammar bullying end up in a sorry state: insecure about their linguistic abilities yet clueless about what to do. Writing abilities suffer rather than being enhanced. This lecture surveys the situation, and offers not only some warnings but also some remedies.

Every year as National Grammar Day (March 4th, alas, my grand-daughter’s birthday) approaches, my heart sinks. The occasion serves primarily to celebrate the program of long-outmoded classifications, bizarre prohibitions, and nitpicking, with the resultant clueless insecurity that Geoff refers to.

I’ve been posting on so-called “dangling modifiers” since 2003, but, still, every time I have to read in some corrective lesson about what’s really going on with these phenomena, which amounts to a wholesale abandonment of centuries-old mistaken ideas about them and a substitution of fresh conceptualizations and terminology, using modern scholarship about English grammar. Dozens of times, again and again, and nothing I say shifts popular opinion. (In addition, since new readers keep coming along, I can’t assume any continuity with my earlier postings. There’s no cumulative development of ideas; on the net, history is always beginning again.)

Many people have told me that I’m in the wrong business: I should go back to writing for my academic colleagues, and forget about writing for a larger audience. But I’m  hopelessly a teacher, so I keep trying. And raging, and (often) weeping. The stuff that kids are being taught! Right up there with the Four Humors.

11 Responses to “The scandal of English grammar”

  1. rwojcik Says:

    Too bad that I missed this. I wasn’t aware that it was being given tonight.

  2. Benjamin Lukoff Says:

    Please *do* keep writing for a larger audience!

    I posted on Facebook that I had just gotten back from the lecture and that it made me want to write about the intersection between linguistics and editing. A friend of mine, a UW professor who couldn’t make the lecture, asked for a summary, and I wrote this.

    Tl;dr version? Hear, hear to everything you say above and to most of what Pullum said in his lecture, but I’d like to see people try to reach out more to the purveyors of “prescriptivist poppycock,” one of Pullum’s favorite Language Log tags, as opposed to dismissing them out of hand.

    (For context, I studied English language and linguistics at both the bachelor’s and master’s levels, though I did not go on for doctoral work. I have worked in electronic publishing for most of my professional life and though I am not one now have held the title of copyeditor, for which Pullum seems to have particular opprobrium.)

    Paraphrasing: “I saw about 20 copies of Strunk & White at Magus Books. Perhaps after this lecture you can buy all of them and burn them.”

    He of course easily demolished a number of “bogeyman” rules such as the prohibition on sentence-final prepositions, split infinitives, singular “they,” etc. And he took it a step further by showing how people, trying to avoid violating such rules, come up with all sorts of tortured circumlocutions that make their writing worse, not better.

    (He also had a slide of an undergraduate’s history paper that was marked all over by a TA who had labeled numerous constructions as being in the passive voice. None of them was actually in the passive. And the TA missed the only passive construction on the page.)

    He didn’t have much good to say about copyeditors, though. I know which kinds he was talking about, and I’m sure he knows that there is great value to editing, although it lies in helping to make things clearer, not helping to protect prepositions from being stranded or infinitives from being split.

    I don’t think any of the talk would be news to a linguist, nor would much of it be news to anyone who was genuinely interested in English and had done a fair amount of reading on the subject. It would probably genuinely offend ”Mrs. Slapwrist” and anyone to whom Strunk & White is holy scripture. Which isn’t to say it was a great talk — and it was very entertaining. (Full house!) And to the layperson who hasn’t thought much about usage at all since they were in school? Probably very informative — and that’s probably where the greatest value is. (This was a “public lecture,” after all.) But boy, Mrs. Slapwrist and her fellow prescriptivists, especially the ones in positions of power in education and publishing are the ones who could REALLY use this, and the talk was almost designed to turn them off.

    I thought his suggestion, at the end, that everyone in college should at some point take at least one class in linguistics or English language (and of course that would be French in France, German in Germany, etc.), was a good one, though considering that, at least when I was at the UW, you didn’t even need a single English language or linguistics course to get a BA in ENGLISH, we have a LONG way to go until that happens…

  3. arnold zwicky Says:

    What I did instead of viewing the State of the Union address (which I’ll be fully informed about in the NYT in the morning): a whole evening of episodes of Castle I hadn’t seen before. While working, of course.

  4. Robert Says:

    I’d love it if “wholescale abandonment” was a quasi-eggcorn, but I suspect that it was simply a typo.

  5. Z Says:

    “Many people have told me that I’m in the wrong business: I should go back to writing for my academic colleagues, and forget about writing for a larger audience.”

    Whoever said this has no idea! I (and I’m sure a whole lot of other people in this world too) need many Arnold M. Zwickys or Geoffrey Nunbergs. Otherwise, we’d rather move backward than forward.

  6. Olof Hellman Says:

    I attended the lecture and thought it was wonderful. As a regular reader of Language Log, most of the material was familiar for me, but there really is no substitute for a live lecture by an opinionated and witty scholar.

    The thing which I took away from the lecture was a sense that having a label like “bogeyman rule” is quite empowering when trying to confront a situation where one of those rules is being asserted. I like “bogeyman rule”, but I wish we had better vocabulary for some other concepts. Prof. Pullum used “grammar bullies” quite a bit — I wish there were a term for these folks that expressed their wrongness in equal measure to their meanness. “miscorrection” is another term that appears frequently on Language Log, but it feels a little too cute for me– I’d like a term that carries a bit more invective. If folks have better suggestions for these terms, I would love to hear them.

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