John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.
Tuesday, June 23, 2009
O my people
Some of us learned long ago that it is a syntactical construction in which the subject of the sentence is not the agent of the action, as in the classic “Mistakes were made.” But people, including professional writers and editors and teachers, are identifying “passive voice” as simply not identifying the agent of action, or not taking sides, or merely being dull.
There is nothing unusual, Professor Liberman points out, for a technical term to take on a broader, popular sense. But he finds it distinctly odd that people who pretend to expertise in language and criticize the work of other writers cannot get the technical terms right. But he says it better:
It is common that “one of a word's senses is a term of art in some well-established field whose scope overlaps in everyday life with the word's ordinary-language uses. This applies to many legal terms and to some physical, chemical, and biomedical ones. But in the case of grammatical terms, something additional and unusual has happened: a large class of professionals, who act like maintainers of a body of technical knowledge, have actually lost the thread.
“It's as if nurses, as a class, had never learned that fever is a technical term for abnormally high measurements of body temperature, and instead used it variously to mean "A state of intense nervous excitement" or "Contagious but transient social enthusiasm", while still acting as if these were well-defined medical conditions, subject to exact measurement and treatment.”
The fault here lies increasingly with my fellow prescriptivists, bloggers and columnists and language commentators and viewers-with-alarm and — yes, to my sorrow — even copy editors. It is depressing to see how many writers professing to uphold the purity of the language simply get things wrong.* Or, as a recent post at Arrant Pedantry, “Linguists and Straw Men,” says, “There’s still an awful lot of absolute bloody nonsense coming from the prescriptivists of the world.
Some of that bloody nonsense can be attributed to mumpsimus,** the stubborn human persistence in a long-held error. Many wrong-headed prescriptivist pronouncements can be traced back to bad advice from an English teacher or journalism professor or managing editor. Arnold Zwicky has traced the means by which bad advice becomes embedded, and the main factor appears to be sheer laziness: “[T]he bad advice has the advantage of simplicity and clarity (never do X; do Y or Z instead), while the good advice allows for alternatives and requires people to make judgments about what they want to say or write in particular contexts.”
I’m frankly at a loss. I give my students and colleagues my best advice. I exhort. I explain. I point to reputable authorities whose work is available in books and on the Internet. I link to linguists and to fellow reasonable prescriptivists, like Bill Walsh and Jan Freeman, all of whom have manned these ramparts longer than I have. And the problem is not barbarians at the gates — kids texting in their peculiar argot or adults succumbing to Twitter. The language is not degenerating. English is not going down the tubes. The enemy is at our side, fighting the wrong battles with the wrong weapons.
*I’m going to spare you citations of previous posts on the superstitions about the split infinitive, the split verb, none as a plural, and the like. You should know what I think by now.
**Unlike nearly everyone else who ever uses this word, I’m not going to detail its etymology. You can look it up yourself.