A Disinterested Observation

by Feb 9, 2011Linguistics3 comments

I had an English major for a dad, so vocabulary quizzes were never difficult for me in school. I remember a particular classmate—who bore more than a passing resemblance to Scut Farkus—looking at me with a mixture of incredulity and loathing as I said, “Mrs. S., I already know all the words on our new list.” (Needless to say, I wasn’t popular in high school.)

What motivation should high school students have to expand their English vocabulary and increase their grammatical “correctness”? My fellow student, Scut, had none. And I had the wrong one: arrogance.

So let me offer some wisdom from Sidney Landau’s Dictionaries: The Art and Craft of Lexicography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001). The points are mine, the quotes his.

  1. Using accepted language and grammar is a sign of having enough money to educate yourself. In other words, it’s a class distinction, because “accepted” only means “accepted by the higher classes.”

    The record plainly shows that most people of all classes customarily make no distinction between disinterested and uninterested or between nauseated and nauseous, yet critics continue to note the alleged differences in urgent or melancholy tones. Such a fastidious attitude serves to mark the critic as belonging to a high social class. The situation is analogous to that of a guest remarking on transposed forks in the place settings at a dinner table. As Dwight Bolinger puts it: “The lie-lay distinction is fragile and impractical, and the price of maintaining it is too high. But that is exactly what makes it so useful as a social password: without the advantage of a proper background or proper schooling, you fail.” (p. 256)

  2. The next point follows closely: using accepted grammar (in the U.S., anyway—Landau says it’s different in Britain) can help you climb higher than your social class. There are even businesses which cater to people stuck with dialects they want to shed.

    [Question:] If tens of millions of people hear and use certain locutions, apparently without disapproving of them, by what right can a dictionary charged with the responsibility of describing usage say they are wrong?…. [Answer:] Standard usage is an artificial construct that is immensely helpful in teaching English and in guiding people who are ambitious to adopt forms that are more generally accepted among those people who have the power to reward them. It is not heaven-sent truth. (p. 260)

  3. A sense for grammar and smooth writing is the fruit of good reading, something worthwhile in itself. Landau quotes Lanham:

    How do you cultivate an “ear” [for language]? Barzun knows the answer…—wide reading. You cannot memorize rules, you will not even want to try, until you have an intuitive knowledge of language, until you have cultivated some taste. Now usage dictionaries, if you browse through them, can help you confirm and sharpen your taste, but they are unlikely to awaken it. They move, again, in the opposite direction, argue that intuitive judgments are not intuitive but conceptual, codify them, render them a matter of rules. They would keep us perpetually on our “p’s and q’s,” and a love for language does not lie that way. The perpetual single focus on correctness kills enjoyment, makes prose style into one long Sunday school. Usage dictionaries, that is, can teach us only what we already know. They tend to be the affectation of, well, of people specially interested in usage. They are most useful as the central document in a continuing word-game played by sophisticated people.

But those three reasons are obviously this-worldly. That doesn’t make them wrong; I think, in fact, that they’re right. But they’re limited. Use only these reasons and you’ll gather treasures that moth and rust can corrupt and that death will one day steal.

So here are two scriptural reasons to learn how to use the kind of grammar accepted and used by the higher classes:

  1. Accepted grammar is a tool allowing you to express truth with power and persuasiveness. It is a tool for “dominion” in the Genesis 1:28 sense. The man who can’t put two sentences together is unlikely to have as much influence, other things being equal, as the man who can turn a phrase—and do so without typos. Or perhaps I should say that every Christian young person ought to try to reach high with his or her communication skills, because young people can’t know where their callings will take them. People respect the training that they know went into forming good communication skills. You can always reach down from where you are linguistically; you can never reach higher than you really are without being discovered.
  2. Perfecting your use of the language of the highest classes allows you to be creative—like the God whose image you bear—in ways that are likely impossible otherwise. If our ability to create is part of God’s image in us (Gen 1:26-28), then developing that ability is a good in itself. Beautiful language glorifies God. Good stories glorify God. Poor language is comparatively less beautiful and less glorifying to God.

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  1. Todd Jones


    It seems that these arguments apply equally well for all the humanities. I make similar arguments at the beginning of my Introduction to Music class. Next semester’s motivations, if I remember about this, will be even more similar.

  2. Mark Ward

    A quotable quote: “The meaning of a word isn’t found ultimately in a dictionary, but rather in its usage.”


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