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 jemcintyre@gmail.com, 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/.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Leave English out of it


Tim James, a candidate for governor in Alabama, wants all state forms to be available in English only. He says in a campaign ad: “This is Alabama. We speak English.* If you want to live here, learn it.”

I suppose that the pull of the yahoo nativist vote is strong, as it has been in this country from the time of the aptly named Know Nothings to the present. A century ago, for example, Baltimore had a number of public schools that conducted classes in German, but the practice was abandoned in apprehension that this would give aid and comfort to the Kaiser.

And every time this tide rises, the Make-English-Our-Official-Language crowd also bestirs itself.** No doubt some think that it would be a particularly good idea in Arizona, the May I See Your Papers Please State.

It may not be possible to head off this nonsense, but there are some calm statements that you can repeat to yourself amid the noise.

English is a world language, more widespread than Latin ever was. It is not in danger and does not require protection.

English is not in decline, no matter how much young people’s slang irritates you or how much you despise impact used as a verb. (English has been nouning verbs and verbing nouns since Chaucer was in grammar school and does not appear likely to abandon the practice.)

There is no one “official” or standard English, there is no body or authority to enforce standards of English usage, and no English-speaking country has ever wanted one.

English is as purely democratic as anything you will ever see. You can speak and write as you choose, and so can everyone else.

Loosen up. Stop fretting.



*Well, yeah, after a fashion.


**In 2006, when Taneytown, Maryland, a rural municipality of about 5,000 people, first proposed to make English its official language, I offered my services:

I am prepared to move to Taneytown to serve as municipal English magistrate, and I am drafting provisions to put teeth into the ordinance.

Using it’s for its.
            First offense: a godly admonition.
            Second offense: a stern warning.
            Third offense: a tattoo of the letter I on the forehead, for Illiterate.

Sounding the t in often.
            Fine of $5.00 per occurrence.

Pronouncing nuclear as nucular.
            Fine of $10 per occurrence.

Pronouncing mischievous as mischeevious
            Shunning.

Failure to make a subject and verb agree, as in the sentence on Taneytown’s Web site saying that “the City and surrounding area is rich in historic landmarks.”
            One hour at noon in the stocks in front of the town hall.

Allowing annoying typos into print, as in the mayor’s State of the City report on the Web site: “He has come to use with some new ideas and some of those have already been put into action” (emphasis added). This is a serious offense because of the presumption that no copy editor has been employed to vet the text.
Dismissal of appointed officials, impeachment of elected officials.

Saying between you and I.
            Forfeiture of driver’s license for 30 days.

Using whom when the pronoun is the subject of a subordinate clause.
            Spend the night in the box.

Saying or writing the obnoxious pleonasm safe haven.
            One week at a re-education camp shoveling pig manure. 

25 comments:

  1. I'd nominate you for English magistrate any day! Please let me know if you'll grant permission to share these rules, with proper credit to the source, of course.

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  2. Pronouncing Maryland "mary land" instead of "marilund" > Wearing the letter N on a placard around the neck (N standing for "not frum around here.")

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  3. Excellent column, although I'm not sure that the concern here is for the survival of English but for avoiding the emergence of little Quebecs throughout the United States.
    Although I often (leaving the "t" unpronounced, of course) dislike the tone of what people say in pushing official English, I understand the motivation. My grandparents came from Germany in the 1920s, learned the language and thus became fully American. The fear is Balkanization and I share it. I just wish officials and candidates would be nicer about seeking to fend off this threat.

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  4. Excellent column, although I'm not sure that the concern here is for the survival of English but for avoiding the emergence of little Quebecs throughout the United States.
    Although I often (leaving the "t" unpronounced, of course) dislike the tone of what people say in pushing official English, I understand the motivation. My grandparents came from Germany in the 1920s, learned the language and thus became fully American. The fear is Balkanization and I share it. I just wish officials and candidates would be nicer about seeking to fend off this threat.

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  5. Clearly the people who advocate English as the official language of anything don't understand the history of the language.

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  6. @cherie b.
    As long as we're on state names, Ory-gone is incorrect (origun), as is Nevahda (ne-va'-da, with a hard, short a on the second syllable).

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  7. To Sharon P: Make free.

    To Anonymous: I think that concern about balkanization is exaggerated. As long as we have had non-English-speaking immigrants, we have had pockets of other languages. But the road to success in the dominant culture involves speaking English, reinforced by television and other media. The Germans among us no longer look like a danger.

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  8. I intend pronouncing Maryland and Nevada any way I choose - and likewise Paris, Berlin and Peking. How are you doing with Woolfardisworthy?

    I live in a country (UK) in which English is an official language. That doesn't stop local and national government publishing documents in other languages (including particularly those of the Indian sub-continent) when that is useful. I don't feel particularly balkanised. The important thing is to spend money teaching immigrants English. How does Mr James feel about that?

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  9. I see you haven't caved in to AP's admonition to spell "Web site" "website." :)

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  10. If in English you don't learn to yammer
    Better fetch you a book on that grammar
    If you ain't understandin'
    What Tim James be demandin'
    You might find yourself hauled to the slammer

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  11. Did Taneytown respond to you?

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  12. An article in The New York Times says that as many as 800 languages are spoken in New York, "The most linguistically diverse city in the world":

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/29/nyregion/29lost.html?hp

    New York appears to have learned nothing from Taneytown.

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  13. Saying library as libary.........
    Forced recitation of the entire Dewey Decimal system catalog of your local library

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  14. If your "nucular" rule was law, George W. Bush would have made you a rich man.

    Since I am surrounded by people from Alabama where I work, and live so close to Alabama, I'm provided with a rich source of daily entertainment. For instance, when one is feeling sick, they describe themselves as "feeling puny".
    Huh? And they put mayo on their hot dogs.

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  15. Dear Anonymous --

    There are plenty of Francophones in Ontario (and other parts of Canada) with little concern over separatism. Please learn some Canadian history before rashly assuming the Quebec problem is linguistic in origin.

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  16. I would ask the English magistrate to include as minor offenses, requiring a fine but not jail time:
    1) Using sports cliches in non-sports stories. (Sports cliches are bad enough in sports stories.)
    2) Using medical terms in non-medical stories. They're almost always used wrong. ("schizophrenic policy"???!!)

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  17. It also helps, if you are going to tell others to "learn English" as Mr. James did, that your message is error free. His is not, at least according to the Rules of Punctuation:

    http://www.bit.ly/chXIa4

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  18. "There is no one “official” or standard English, there is no body or authority to enforce standards of English usage, and no English-speaking country has ever wanted one."

    "I am prepared to move to Taneytown to serve as municipal English magistrate, and I am drafting provisions to put teeth into the ordinance."

    Which are it? You must have been kidding in one case. I just can't tell which one.

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  19. Yes, I was kidding in one case. Take a wild guess.

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  20. Prescriptive grammar has a bad rap these days.

    Language changes whether we help it or not. We don't need to be hyper-aware of it changing to be tolerant of other people. Intolerance is not rooted in a logical linguistics argument.

    Prescriptive grammar is very important because we have to teach language. There IS a broadcast standard, and it is worth knowing the formal dialect, if only to do well in society. Every time "language changes" comes up and an expert decries prescriptive grammar, someone writes "alot" and "omghai2u" and says "I can do what I want; language changes."

    Yes, fine, it changes. But not as quickly as it's changing now. There is merit to being able to read from a wide selection of literature because of the relatively slow rate of language change. "Language changes" shouldn't be an excuse for learning only your small community's dialect, and ignoring anyone more than a couple hundred miles away. We come together with a standard; we keep sharing expressions even though some live in CA and some live in CT, and we can read texts from 1800 without difficulty.

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  21. Re: Sounding the t in often.
    Perfectly fine, according to the pronunciation guide in my dictionary. Both are correct.

    Re: Failure to make a subject and verb agree, as in the sentence on Taneytown’s Web site saying that “the City and surrounding area is rich in historic landmarks.”
    Sorry, what? I see a collective singular (the City and surrounding area as one large single thing) used with a singular verb (is). Correctly. Were you assuming the 'and' was conjoining two singulars ('the City' and 'surrounding area') into a plural?

    Re: Saying or writing the obnoxious pleonasm safe haven.
    Redundant pleonasms (ha!) are part of English idiomatic and stylistic expressions. Not all writing must be concise.

    Being prescriptive is one thing; being incorrectly prescriptive is another. If you were English Magistrate, you'd drive the English teachers mad.

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  22. I think you missed the point. He's not even attempting to be prescriptive - the magistrate thing was a joke, folks.

    Redundant expressions are, from a prescriptive angle, bad. The word "safe" does nothing for "haven," and would mean the same thing without "safe." Ergo, "safe" is not at all an important part of the expression "safe haven." Being concise is always better if your extra words say nothing. Again, though, your correction of his prescriptivist SATIRE is not really addressing his point (you and he are actually in agreement, in general, about idiomatic and stylistic expressions having a place).

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  23. It's like "hot water heater,"

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  24. Oh Anonymous...

    I know the magistrate thing was a joke. Should I have followed my comment up with :-P so you'd know I wasn't serious? My comment started because of the 't' in 'often'. When I was an English teacher, the text book went out of its way to say that pronouncing the 't' was wrong. This drove me mad, as any dictionary showed it was clearly incorrect (and to me, not pronouncing the 't' sounds ... I don't know. Like saying 'tea' for 'supper'. Something people do, and not wrong, just...).

    The word 'safe' indeed does nothing to enhance 'haven' and is not strictly necessary. Necessary being the operative there. 'Safe haven' is an oft-used term. The extra word is only detrimental if you believe conciseness to be an absolute goal. Being concise is NOT *always* better; it depends on your purpose for writing. Being concise in a textbook? Good. Being concise in a novel? Well... it depends on the novel. Being concise in a poem? You have perhaps missed the point of poetry. So, it is arguably not *ALWAYS* better. You have to take care with absolutes like 'always' and 'never'.

    I addressed only the prescriptivist errors because I agree with his point, so there was no need.

    Also, :-P

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