Defending the mother tongue

Educated people should defend their language, writes Christopher Orlet in American Spectator, taking the linguistic luddite position in the culture wars.

Often there is good reason to be skeptical of change, particularly when it comes about out of laziness and the dumbing-down of grammar rules. Again, compare Fowler’s inflexible 1926 Dictionary of Modern English Usage to current grammars like Woe is I, in which rules that are troublesome or too difficult to remember are pronounced outdated or dead. (Rats, if I had known this was possible in my college days I would have pronounced Algebra outdated and dead and gotten on with my binge drinking.)

What the conservative sees as threats to the mother tongue are dismissed by the linguist as the natural progression of language, and nature trumps civilization (here represented by long-established rules) every time. These threats include the politicization of language, as in politically correct speech; threats from bureaucrats, businessmen, and politicians who use language to obfuscate, confuse and deceive, or in the case of academics to disguise a dearth of ideas; and, finally, threats from linguists who promote a laissez-faire approach to language.

Proper grammar is seen as elitist and unnatural.

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  1. It would be difficult to top Orwell’s 1946 Politics and the English Language:

    Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent and our language — so the argument runs — must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.

    Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers. I will come back to this presently, and I hope that by that time the meaning of what I have said here will have become clearer.

    Read it all

  2. The older I get, the more convinced I am that the concept of grammaticality is an epiphenomenon that seems real chiefly to professional linguistic scholars and other cranks.

  3. Richard Brandshaft says:

    Is anyone reading this old enough to object to using “contact” as a verb? Is anyone reading this who never read Nero Wolfe novels old enough to remember that there was once an objection?

    The point being that one generation’s decline in language is often next generation’s standard. After generations of “decline”, we somehow manage communicate amazing complexity with our degenerate grunts.

  4. As a former professor of linguistics with a PhD in the subject, I think boo and Richard Brandshaft’s comments are among the best I’ve ever seen on the subject online. I used them to start my own rant on the subject:
    (with more to come)


    Grammar is mostly a social phenomenon. Someone once compared it to fashion. (I said “mostly” because there probably are biological constraints on the way we use words, just as physics constrains fashion.) Like fashion, grammaticality is transient and not a either/or issue: what may be grammatical/fashionable to some is not to others.

    At best, linguists could concentrate on what prescriptivists (the “proper English” advocates) might see as “LCD” (lowest common denominator) grammar: the rules that *all* native speakers (itself a troubled term!) use. Anything beyond LCD grammar gets foggy, and even LCD grammar itself is not stable. Gender and case used to be very important in English but are now marginal outside the realm of pronouns.

    The next time someone moans about the “fall” of English, tell them that they’re lazy and ignorant. How DARE they speak or write Anglo-Saxon without proper gender, number, and case endings – and with all those Norse, French, Latin, and Greek imports instead of puuuure REAL English words. Shame on them!

  5. Amritas, I agree that grammar is a mostly societal phenomenon, and therefore subject to change. The thing to which I object is the use of this opinion to avoid the teaching of disciplined writing. While almost no writing adheres perfectly to today’s standard grammar, I do believe that writing can be clean, clear, and disciplined.

    Changes in grammar such as ending sentences with prepositions or whether to use a comma before the conjunction in a list really don’t concern me. They fall within the bounds of grammar being like fashion.

    In fact, it’s not so much grammar as the trend towards using language that is devoid of meaning that concerns me.

    It’s rare nowadays to find someone who says what he means in clear, unquestionable language. So much writing is loaded with qualifiers, hedges, and euphemisms that it becomes difficult to figure out what the writer is saying. If one isn’t going to make clear what he means, why bother writing it down at all? Is it that he wants to say something, but fears opposition? Is it that he really doesn’t know what he wants to say, but nonetheless has the urge to have his voice heard?

    Those are possible reasons, but I submit that it is as much sloppiness as intentional obfuscation that is causing the cloudiness in much of the writing I see. My axiom when it comes to writing is that if a word doesn’t contribute, then it doesn’t belong. Now, being a mere mortal, my first off writing has a lot of words which don’t contribute. That’s why I edit.

    Personally, I don’t think enough of that kind of editing goes on nowadays. It’s one thing to proofread a piece and pick up on all the spelling and grammatical errors. It’s another to go through a piece and consider what words aren’t adding to it and eliminate or replace them. That takes time and effort. It also takes a good enough command of grammar to determine what function a particular word serves in the sentence.

    It’s this kind of editing, and the skills upon which it is based, that leads to clear concise writing. Moreover, I’ve found that it’s this kind of editing with uncovers flaws in my ideas, forcing me to refine what I’m saying, not just how I’m saying it. Is it possible that not being able to edit like this is a hurdle in formulating a clear set of ideas? If this is so, could it be that not being able to write clearly acutally equals not being able to think clearly on complex issues?

  6. I like to assign 2 page papers in which students have to make a recommendation, based on cases which may be 20-40 pages long, and support their recommendations using reason and analysis. Students don’t realize that it is very difficult to write concisely and effectively. You can’t waste words and still adequately support your recommendation.

    While the length of the assignment does make it easier to grade, its purpose is to help students learn to get to the point. And I am a complete witch with a capital “B” when it comes to grammar, spelling, readableness, and professional style. I’m tired of sending seniors out to the “real world” with no ability to communicate in writing, which forces companies to spend money on remedial communication skills training for otherwise really smart professionals.

  7. I consider ending a sentence in a preposition to be sloppy, even if it is no longer against the rules. People tend to think of the alternatives as awkard, but that is because they are lazy in considering ways to rewrite the sentence.

  8. DrLiz, that sounds like a fantastic assignment. In fact, I think it’s far too rare to have teachers impose a limit on the length of the paper. One of the things I always hated in my junior year English class were the 5-page papers that were assigned on topics that warranted a 2- or 3-page paper. I would make my points quickly and efficiently, back them up, and still have a couple of pages left to fill before hitting the minimum.

    Also, regarding ending a sentence with a preposition, I find it rather clumsy and will repair any sentences in my writing that end in that way. However, it’s something that I generally don’t call other people on when I’m proofing their papers unless it interferes with meaning.