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, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, and now at

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Peevologist psychology

The peevologist, a self-proclaimed expert on language, can be readily identified by certain key characteristics: a belief, stated or implicit, that the English language is in decline and being corrupted; much moaning about falling standards, often violated by identifiable groups, particularly the young; repeated brandishing of fetishes unsupported by linguistics, history, or practice (think of the split infinitive).

A post last week, “Musée des Peevologies,” offered some exhibits of peevology, and this week, as promised, we undertake a look at the psychological elements that contribute to full-blown peevology.

The teacher’s pet: The student who actually does the assignment and gives the correct answer earns the teacher’s praise. That praise being especially valuable if the student is a bookworm and inept at sports, coming up with the right answer every time becomes a powerful motivator. And when the teacher is a former teacher’s pet, grown up in the belief that there is always a right answer that the student can and should supply, the loop is closed.

The English major: The teacher’s pet who goes on to be an English major is ripe for seduction by High Modernism, with its doctrine that the greatest literary texts can be understood only by an embattled minority sensitive to nuance and allusion, and surrounded by the herd. That the prestige of majoring in English is close to nil (though still a notch or two higher than going into the School of Education) makes it necessary to hold even more firmly to that sense of being among an elect.

The copy editor: Once succumbing to journalism, job prospects for English majors being what they are and always have been, the developing peevologist likely fetches up on the copy desk. Copy editors (a dwindling species) focus on the minutiae of language, and the former English major is expected to be an expert on grammar and usage (though chances are excellent that he has never studied linguistics*). In this environment, the peevologist’s bent is reinforced by the copy editor’s conviction, echoing the lesson of the teacher’s pet, that there is always a right answer. Everything in editing is a 1 or a 0, right or wrong, as specified by the Associated Press Stylebook or some tortured exegesis of it.

The cranky old white guy:** As the arteries harden, so do the attitudes. There was, it seems, a golden age, usually dating from the peevologist’s youth or just before his time, when there were Standards. Those Standards are always being undermined, and the greatest danger comes from people who are younger than the peevologist, or of a different ethnic, cultural, or class background. The peevologist stands bravely on the ramparts, menaced by the barbarian hordes, and he will not capitulate. In plain fact, he is merely a snob.

H.L. Mencken, a gifted amateur student of the English language in its American version, was rightly skeptical of snobs and self-anointed authorities, writing in his monumental work, The American Language:

The error of ... viewers with alarm is in assuming that there is enough magic in pedagogy to teach ‘correct’ English to the plain people. There is, in fact, too little; even the fearsome abracadabra of Teachers College, Columbia, will never suffice for the purpose. The plain people will always make their own language, and the best that grammarians can do is to follow after it, haltingly, and often without much insight. Their lives would be more comfortable if they ceased to repine over it, and instead gave it some hard study. It is very amusing, and not a little instructive.

We have English because some exceedingly plain people, a rabble of illiterate peasants, abandoned the standards of Anglo-Saxon, and English remains, like all other languages, what its speakers and writers collectively make of it. Linguists understand this, and they explore the mechanisms and richnesses of the language, as it is actually spoken and actually written. Reasonable prescriptivists, among whom I number myself,*** who aim to advise people how to write more clearly, more effectively, more elegantly, acknowledge this and labor to offer advice that is better informed than the misguided strictures of the peevologists.

*Actually, English majors and journalists (the latter group often with a less reliable education even than the English major’s) may never have studied grammar much in any form. Thus we can find people railing against the split infinitive who do not know what an infinitive is, or condemning passive voice in constructions that are not passive.

**Not to stereotype, but you must surely have noticed how frequently the peevologist is white, male, and middle-aged or older.

***The ready reader of this blog will have recognized how many dangerous personal traits I have struggled with to move toward such reasonableness.


  1. While I dislike grammatical pedantry, I do believe standards are necessary. Alas, not everyone agrees. My daughter and I were stunned recently when her language professor insisted there is no right or wrong to grammar. Tower of Babel, here we come.

  2. The analogy is imperfect, but we had a reporter in my newsroom for a while who was a prototypical teacher's pet, always fawning over and brown-nosing the contemptible editor who was the recipient of the surreptitious Twinkie gifts to which I referred in an earlier post. This reporter's nickname was The Tripod, the context being that if he ever pulled his head out of the editor's you-know-what, the editor would topple over.

  3. It's always been my philosophy that what's important is being understood. Thanks for telling us about Crash blossoms. There are some great examples of how failing to follow rules can lead to misunderstanding.

  4. Michele, that's a caricature, what Geoff Pullum calls "anything goes". It's as absurd as the alternative, "nothing counts" (meaning that no amount of evidence that well-known writers X, Y, and Z broke his rules will convince him that the rule is no good in the first place). The paradox of the modern grammarian is that he denies both extremes: there are correctness conditions for English (nobody says Me see she), but it is evidence that establishes what they are and more importantly what they aren't.

  5. To John, Re your "dangerous personal traits": You are are too hard on yourself.

    To Michele: That tower has been around for thousands of years already. It would be interesting to travel back in time to see if there ever was a time when we all spoke exactly the same way. I'm sure your daughter's professor will still acknowledge (and teach or suggest learning) the standards for certain circumstances. I think that's the whole point: there are many, many different "standards." The key is learning when you need to leave your own behind and "brown-nose" to get a job, or impress a client, or sell a product, or talk to a judge, etc. Those "standards" are changing too (some more quickly than others). My own peevish tendencies come out most strongly when I hear marketing language. It kills me. But then again I also hate legalese for being so incomprehensible. I would love it if some great editors could overhaul our justice and political system and bring the language they use into this century. John, how about rewriting the healthcare reform bills so that they can't be interpreted in 50 different insane ways (making them essentially useless at this point).

  6. To traceychen, Take a look at Bryan Garner's work in the legal writing arena.

  7. Can't say that I've ever met anybody over 50 who didn't view with alarm. People who view with alarm fear mainly the known, the unknown and the fuzzy in-between. They have reasons. Live long enough and pretty much everything will have gone wrong. Live still longer and you'll be dead.

    The person who knows grammar has a similar problem to the person with perfect pitch -- his world is out of kilter. Western Civilization's urge to have or make things right can drive such people mad. Speaking of being driven mad, it beats me whether I have a similar problem TO the person with perfect pitch or AS the person with perfect pitch. One would write THE SAME PROBLEM AS, but somehow A SIMILAR PROBLEM AS sounds wrong, and A SIMILAR PROBLEM TO sounds right. I view my indecision with some alarm but not much. I started this message with a thought, I think. Wait! One wouldn't write A PROBLEM SIMILAR AS the person with perfect pitch, so one shouldn't write A SIMILAR PROBLEM AS the person with perfect pitch. One wouldn't write A PROBLEM THE SAME TO, so one shouldn't write THE SAME PROBLEM TO. I am so grateful that I never had to learn English as a second language. So many times our ears save us because we've spoken and heard English our whole lives. All the rules will carry us only so far. One wish for all children is that their parents speak grammatically. A misleading ear is a terrible thing. Forced to choose between a good ear and an extensive knowledge of grammar, I'd probably go with the former. One difference: you learn grammar, but you acquire a good ear.

    Yes, I'm a retired guy with time on my hands and and a multitude of stray thoughts. Wish there were a market for stray thoughts.

  8. Thanks Onymous. Will do.

  9. The cranky old white guy group gets stuck in their ways. I have feeling that when people turn a certain age they become a peevologist about something. Maybe it's part of the aging process; after peevology comes senility.

  10. Despite my best efforts at not becoming a 'peevologist,' I find myself barking at my students to stop calling everything they don't expect or understand "random," and explaining that the only time they say the word 'like" is if they are making a comparison. This robs them of roughly 30% of their range of expression, but at least they pause and think a moment.

  11. "Peeviologist" -- please!

    PEE VEE O LO GIST, 5 sounds

    PEEVOLOGIST does not work, sorry.

    Dr PEEVE

  12. I suggest to Mrs Hush's daughter that, in the case of her obnoxious, strutting princox of a professor, writing well and with correct grammar is the best revenge. Clearly he has deconstructed himself - to get his PhD no doubt - and is trying to deconstruct his students.He most likely believes that language has no meaning except that which the reader (He, The Professor Who Must Be Obeyed) gives it. Resist Resist Resist! Remain Bloody But Unbowed! (Some day, if you are fortunate, you may have to write for someone who actually cares about good grammar.

  13. My father, a few years after retiring from the Army and searching for a new career in order to send three children to college, briefly attended Columbia's Teacher's College. A recurring comment was, "Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach. Those who can't teach, teach teachers."

  14. "... trying to deconstruct his students ... He most likely believes that language has no meaning except that which the reader gives it ..."

    Wow. Where did that come from? Sounds like SOMEbody had a bad experience in grad school, dang.

    John Cowan, thank you for your comment on this post. Alas, the problem, as Mr. McIntyre illustrates (with help from some others here), is that peevology is not really just a misunderstanding of small-g grammar, or of what linguists do, or dialectology, or language change, or correctness conditions, or deconstruction, or even reader-response theory. But I suppose you know that by now ...

  15. Au contraire, I had a very good experience in graduate school. I did, however, do my graduate work at about the same time the so-called English Department (before it called itself "textual Studies") bought the whole deconstructionist package from the Ivy League.English professors, who previously had taught literature and poetry as if they had intrinsic meaning, suddenly began poncing about, claiming that they and they alone understood the modern political construct of Hamlet.Happily, music doesn't lend itself to this approach, although a few misguided souls have tried with Chopin and Beethoven. Neither changed the course of history, and even better, neither changed the course of the musical past.

  16. Isn't it Peevolocism to be peeved at the Peevologist? Yes, Mr. Cowan, people DO say "Me see she" or the grammatic equivalent. And they are lauded for their "honesty" and praised by the Literati for "telling it like it is" and bringing us "back to the streets." Sometimes we need someone to just stand up and say "The Emporer has no clothes on."

    An old, white, male, pudgy guy who is
    Retired in Elkridge

  17. Two descriptivists and one reasonable prescriptivist walk into a bar, and ... where was I? Oh, yes ... As I was saying, three descriptivists walk into a bar ...

  18. An insightfull post. Will definitely help.

    Karim - Creating Power