Another wrangle last week, this one in an online discussion with people who insist that the relative pronoun that, against all evidence, must not be used to refer to human beings and is "dehumanizing" when used so. Such dogmatism about the English language is common, strident, and frequently ill-informed.
H.W. Fowler exploded the split-infinitive superstition a century ago. Theodore Bernstein's Miss Thistlebottom's Hobgoblins has been available for half a century. Bryan Garner has been exposing superstitions and shibboleths about English usage for a generation. And yet what we commonly hear is that some commonplace word or usage is "uneducated" or "illiterate" or "like fingernails on a blackboard," and that we are verging on barbarism.
What by contrast I found appealing in Ellen Jovin's Rebel with a Clause is its atmosphere of openness and generosity. Ellen Jovin travels around the country from her base in New York City, setting up her Grammar Table in public spaces to engage any passerby who is interested in discussion of grammar and usage. Her account shows that people are fascinated by language, keen to talk about it, and--make note--willing to be better informed.
My own experience as a professional copy editor over forty years is that my colleagues, far from being the robotic assassins of prose that some reporters would have had you think, have been open and generous in their approach to the craft. It was a quarter-century ago that Pam Robinson and the late Hank Glamann on their own volunteer time got the American Copy Editors Society (now ACES: The Society for Editing) launched. It has ever since relied on scores of volunteer speakers to broaden our perspective on language and editing and deepen our skills.
In my own blogging I have learned a great deal from exchanges with linguists such as Geoffrey Pullum and Arnold Zwicky and with lexicographers such as Peter Sokolowski, Kory Stamper, Steve Kleinedler, and Emily Brewster, all willing to share their expertise and offer support. What one finds from them is that there are many Englishes beyond the standard written form, all of which have fascinating features worth examining.
Karen Yin's Conscious Style Guide and Conscious Language Newsletter are invaluable sources of intelligent and informed explorations of the ways the language is shifting and efforts to treat everyone we write about with dignity and respect.
There are, of course, fair targets: journalists who can't make their subjects and verbs agree, academics who make a fetish of obscurity, merchants of vacuous business jargon, and anyone who inflicts pretentious or dishonest or dull prose on you. Striking a blow for clarity and accuracy is always apt.
But they aren't the targets of the people with the pinched view of language, the view that some form of standard written English is the only "correct" one, that some schoolroom nostrum carried into adulthood (and often misremembered) is eternally valid. What is actually behind the pinched view is not really an objection to words and usages in themselves, but to the people who use them. These objections are an opportunity to parade contempt for people thought to be inferiors.
Life is all choices. You can choose to frisk among the Englishes with people who are open-handedly willing to talk about them with you. Or you can clutch a precarious gentility.