John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and random topics. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. The original site,, at, and now at

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Say 'Arrrrrrrr'

With International Talk Like a Pirate Day (September 19) just a couple of weeks off, here is an important reminder:

A pirate’s rhotic growl is rendered thus: Arrrrrrr, with the number of consonants at your discretion.

Arrrrrrgh is an expression of disappointment, distress, anguish. It is thus not appropriate for pirate talk and should not be confused with Arrrrrrr.

Please note this particularly for headline and caption purposes.

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.