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.