Friday, November 17, 2023

Let unlearning be unconfined

 A couple of weeks ago I posted "Give up the ship," in which I argued to abandon, or at least consider abandoning, a handful of long-established usage rules. One reader commented, "My teaching career has been in vain."

Well, mine too. There are points of usage that I taught during a quarter-century at Loyola University Maryland before I came to understand that they were invalid or dangerously dated.* Several of them had been in the Associated Press Stylebook since Joseph Pulitzer was in short pants, which I also enforced on the copy desk until I learned better and nagged the stylebook editors relentlessly to eliminate them. 

When we read about some fresh development in biology or physics, we don't fume and resist and insist that what we were taught in sophomore year of high school is true and eternally valid. We expect that we are going to learn new things, and in the course of learning those new things discovering things we previously learned have to be abandoned. It has been during my lifetime, for example, that the theory of continental drift has become established science after a long period of being ridiculed.

But with language, with grammar and usage, there is stubborn resistance to learning new things and abandoning old ones. (Does gender-neutral third-person singular they spring to mind?) I suspect I know why.

I was, after all, an English major in college, and my mastery of what I had been taught was proper English was not only central to my academic career but also to my identity. As I have remarked elsewhere, without high birth, wealth, and physical beauty, mastery of English grammar was all I had going for me. So sticklers, who insist on precision in English usage even when they are misguided, do so because it is a prop to their identity, a means of differentiating themselves from Those People.**

We can talk about the structure of grammar and examine historic patterns of usage, but language is social and therefore messy. The way we talk and write is how we present ourselves to other people and expect to be perceived by them, just as we make judgments about them on the basis of how they speak and write. Language is as good a means as any to draw a sharp line between ourselves and whoever we label as Those People. 

Working as an editor, trying to make texts clear and appropriate for various audiences, I find it wholesome not to make a fetish of grammar and usage. You can see from this post and others that I deal in the register of standard formal English and that dropping shibboleths over the side does not mean that Anything Goes. After more than forty years as a professional editor, I am still learning and putting that learning to use. 

* I was receptive to the idea early on, having read Theodore M. Bernstein's Miss Thistlebottom's Hobgoblins in graduate school. It was one of the inspirations for [cough] my own Bad Advice: The Most Unreliable Counsel Available on Grammar, Usage, and Writing.

** We see the same phenomenon with history, which people also internalize as part of their identity. I was still in high school when I knew, because of wide reading, that the patriotic sanitized history in our textbooks was pap, that what actually happened was far more complicated and often darker. The people who think that Confederate statues are history rather than propaganda, for example, have identifiable reasons for wanting to believe that.  


  1. I suspect that those who insist that clutching grammatical shibboleths is necessary to preserve the greatness of the “Western literary canon” have never learned enough Greek to read any single ancient manuscript of Thucydides, nor studied enough English literature to have peered at a single photo of a page from Shakespeare’s folios, let alone read Chaucer’s Middle English. Or how about Beowulf and Caedmon’s Hymn? The authors of our earliest “English poetry” and most iconic “Dead White Guy Lit” seem not to have gotten the memo regarding Strunk and White being alpha and omega.

  2. I agree! A language that is still in common use is 'alive', not 'dead'—and it is the most fundamental, very nature of living things to change and grow and adapt. Much like there is a difference between the usage of words being adapted or their application shifted in some way or another to new things/situations/purposes/etcetera versus the meanings of words actually being changed completely or used as if they mean something which they do not mean. To expect that any part of language(grammar or otherwise) should be entirely rigid and unshifting and not to any point even slightly amorphous or remoldable, in my opinion, is to expect that language to be dead and taxidermied. Language can be both a core or integral part of us as well as something independent of or far more than just ourselves, like a very-very dearest friend. It doesn't mean that literally anything and everything always goes, it just means that what exactly goes[ or not] may shift or adapt somewhat with time and/or circumstance, or such; and there is not always anything automatically negative or wrong with that. :-)