I’m with Pinker
I critiqued Steven Pinker several times in Biblical Worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption; Pinker is an epistemological extremist, in my unaccredited opinion, someone who places far too much faith in empirical method.
But I can’t help but like the guy when he talks about the English language—and when he talks: he’s got a precise, Canadian-inflected way of speaking that I like. (I would like him better if he let me on the AHD usage panel, but ah well…) And he understands that the “rules” of English are determined collectively by its speakers, not by the grammarians who complain the loudest.
So when a friend sent me this attack on Pinker’s view of language by Nathan Heller, my dander began to get up and move around. I tried to tamp it down, but that only made it fly around more wildly. To make matters worse, Heller has the gall to make a living as a writer. At the New Yorker of all places. He insisted that Pinker was too laissez faire about our mother tongue, that there is something called “correct English” that people should observe. Or is it which people should observe? Heller says he knows. He says the rest of us could learn if only we truly cared about language like him, if only we plebeians would get our linguistic act together.
But my dander is still very much up. I will submit to my God-given authorities, but not to grammar rules that somebody made up for no good reason in 1888. I say the people must rise up, along with my dander, and get our language back from the self-appointed Grammar Nazis! The “rules” Heller invokes are oppressive. (How often does a BJU graduate get to be more liberal than a New Yorker staff writer? I’m really enjoying this!)
The essay isn’t entirely wrong: I accept the idea that something we might call “correct English”—though I’d rather call it “standard English”—is a separate code worth mastering next to what we already say naturally. And I agree that those who want to push the boundaries of language should prove that they’ve mastered their p’s and q’s first.
But it is generally not a copy-editor’s place to tell an author, “This is not correct.” His job should be to gauge the author’s likely audience and his chosen formality level, and help him try to match the two. Usage determines meaning, so I’d rather hear copy-editors saying, “This is not useful.” An author should be allowed to use “like” instead of “such as” when it fits his purposes. But the “that” vs. “which” distinction totally fits with my favoritest quote on my blog ever:
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)
If your audience is a set of grammar and usage nerds, “I’m so nauseous” is not useful unless you’re making a joke. But there are situations where it might be useful, better even than the “correct” wording. I can think of one: let’s imagine that your friend says at the amusement park, “I’m so nauseous!” It’s not useful to say, “I’m nauseated, too!”—because you just corrected your friend in front of others. You just declared to all present, “This individual does not know the password. He’s not one of us.” That’s not nice. One of my other favorite quotes on language, from Ammon Shea, is also apropos:
I think it delightful that language can engender such passion. At the same time, I find the tendency to belittle people for verbal slights to be quite distasteful. I frequently hear people pointedly aver that they “care about language,” which to me is simply a polite way of saying “I like to correct the language use of other people.” We all care about language, some of us more than others, but the degree to which one is willing to humiliate or upbraid others should not stand as an indication of how much one cares. (xiii)
Language is a tool; arbitrary and inflexible rules don’t do a good job of helping me use language in all the situations in which I find myself. At the very least, I must permit others to “break” the “rules” without arrogantly assuming that they have just revealed their stupidity.
I don’t know why people have such a hard time coming over to the descriptivist side. It’s like there’s a moral blockade. It’s like people who simply cannot stomach Piper’s “Christian hedonism” or Lewis’ “true myth.” I respect their consciences and will try not to rub these usages in their faces, but it is annoying to be tsk-tsked when you know that you’re not doing anything wrong.