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.