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 jemcintyre@gmail.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. The original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/, at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/, and now at https://www.baltimoresun.com/opinion/columnists/mcintyre/

Friday, July 17, 2020

Maybe you could stop congratulating yourself on your grammar

People who preen online about their command of English grammar often assert that they see a general cultural and educational decline, most frequently calling it a "dumbing-down."

In a forty-year career as an editor at newspapers, I have edited the work of people twenty and thirty years older who received, as I did, the traditional instruction in grammar at school, and of people twenty and thirty and forty years younger who received little or none of the traditional instruction.

And every day for forty years, I have sat down at my desk to deal with the same things. The same damn things: subject-verb agreement, misplaced modifiers, incorrect homonyms. All of it, mind you, the work of college-educated journalists whose profession is writing in standard English.

For that matter, my classmates in the public schools of Fleming County, Kentucky, in the 1960s do not necessarily do any better, despite their exposure to the traditional teaching of English grammar.

The traditional method was not particularly effective, and it left a bad taste in the mouth. Some did learn from it, as some will learn something in almost any pedagogical circumstances—Dr. Johnson believed that boys could not learn the classical languages unless they were beaten.

The British linguist David Crystal writes in Making Sense that "the negative associations that surround grammar are the result of unhappy learning experiences, in which complex sentences, artificial examples, pedantic rules, mechanical analyses, and poor explanations have combined to produce a penitential mindset: 'Grammar is good for me, and if it causes mental anguish, then so be it,' "

That people could develop a solid grasp of formal English grammar under such unpromising circumstances is a real accomplishment, even though, as you can read in Bad Advice, a great deal of what they remember is unreliable.

So let's not make proficiency in grammar, the grammar of formal English, which was badly taught for decades, and then not taught at all, a measure of individual or national intelligence.

Speech comes naturally, but writing has to be learned, and most people never get very good at it, particularly in the dialect known as formal written English. We can see that online, where anyone with a computer can become a published writer. As Gretchen McCullough writes in Because Internet, we can look beyond edited publications to see how people actually write.

From there we can surmise that people in general are about as dumb, or intelligent, as they have always been. We can further surmise, from internal evidence, that the "dumbing-down" trope is trotted out when the writer merely wishes to establish a superior social class standing. That is when the reader will recognize that it is time to move on.

There's a difference between cache and cachet, but knowing that does not confer cachet.







Tuesday, July 7, 2020

No apologies necessary

Someone shared a white-people-whining post on Facebook that I thought to examine.

I WILL NOT APOLOGIZE FOR BEING CAUCASIAN

Not that anyone has actually asked you to do that. What you have been asked to do is acknowledge that, even if you are not prosperous, the color of your skin has given you some unearned advantages in our society. For example, if a police officer stops you for a defective taillight and you do not worry that you might wind up in jail, or perhaps be shot, then you enjoy white privilege.

But extra credit for using Caucasian, even though it is a made-up racial identifier. It at least shows that you have learned not to shout "White power!" in public.

I WILL NOT APOLOGIZE FOR SUPPORTING GOOD COPS

It doesn't require strenuous effort to approve of people who do their jobs properly. The question is what you're prepared to do about the number of police officers increasingly demonstrated to be abusing their powers and killing unarmed people who have committed little or no offense.

I WILL NOT APOLOGIZE FOR LOVING MY ASIAN, NATIVE AMERICAN, BLACK AMERICAN & HISPANIC FRIENDS

This is a refreshing twist on the "Some of my best friends are ..." cliche, even though the original was never convincing either.

I WILL NOT BEND MY KNEE FOR ANYONE BUT THE LORD 

Did anyone ask you to?

I WILL NOT BE BRAINWASHED BY THE MEDIA 

There are lots of media, not just one. Which are you watching? The ones that present facts or the ones that just tell you things you would like to hear?

I WILL NOT APOLOGIZE FOR BELIEVING IN THE SECOND AMENDMENT

I'm not sure how this one became more important than all the others. The 21st is nice.

Oh wait, this is the one that says you have to have guns for when the Black people and the brown people swarm out of the cities into the suburbs and countryside to rape and pillage.

Had you heard that the Supreme Court has affirmed that the states can legitimately impose restrictions on the acquisition and use of classes of firearms?

I WILL NOT APOLOGIZE FOR BEING A GOD FEARING AMERICAN

Left the hyphen out of that one.

But you've discovered that there's another amendment to the Constitution, the First, which is still in force, giving you freedom to worship as it suits you. But not, you understand, to use the power of the state to compel other people to conform to your beliefs.

There you go. Take your imagined grievances with you and shut the door behind you.