Friday, March 12, 2021

the language scold's lament

I wrote a comment on Instapundit (where commenters tend to be more intelligent than they are on YouTube), and while I was able to see my comment on my phone, I didn't see it on my desktop computer at the office.*  That gave me pause, mainly because my comments often get suppressed on Instapundit—declared spam, quietly deleted, etc.  The Instapundit post in question had linked to an article titled "Stopping the Rain of Error."  I assume that the use of "Rain" instead of "Reign" was deliberate, given that the article was about how the phrase "free reign" is increasingly seen as standard, as opposed to the original "free rein."  So this some sort of rain/reign/rein homonym joke.

Anyway, when I failed to find my comment on my desktop, I returned to my cell phone and found the comment again.  The comment seems to be in some sort of Schr√∂dingerian state, both existing and not existing (okay, I'm playing a bit fast and loose with Schr√∂dinger, I realize).  So to preserve the comment, I copied it and pasted it into an email, which I then sent to myself.  The commenters responding to the above-linked Instapundit post were all talking about their particular linguistic pet peeves, so I wrote the following:

I write English textbooks for a living here in Seoul, including books on proper grammar, mechanics, and style. Even among us word nerds in the office, I'm considered the biggest of the language scolds. One thing I do know is that you can separate the true scolds from the false ones by seeing whether they trot out outdated or simply incorrect "rules" of grammar. ("Never start a sentence with a coordinating conjunction," etc.) My bullshitometer lights up whenever I come across feeble attempts at sounding smart. A true scold keeps up with how the language is evolving and doesn't retreat to the lame "Well, that's what I learned in school."

It doesn't help that the grammar scold's curse is forever to be accused of "missing the point" when he makes a correction. Such accusers falsely assume the language scold fails to see the forest for the trees, which is an unwarranted assumption. The scold is usually astute enough both to have gotten the point and to have seen the linguistic gaffes. Alas, there's no arguing with dimwits, so I rarely correct other people's language these days.

Does all of this sound arrogant? I suppose it does. That said, I sincerely believe that sloppy use of language, including frequent typos, often indicates sloppy thinking. I'll make exceptions for 95-year-olds who are struggling with modern haptic-interface keyboards, but that's about it.

I use the term "language scold" not because I'm shrinking from the joking term "grammar Nazi" in the phrase "grammar Nazi," but because it's a more general, more inclusive term.  If I correct your spelling, punctuation, or capitalization, I'm not correcting your grammar:  technically, I'm correcting mechanics.  If I think your choice of words is inappropriate, I'm looking at your style or diction.  These are separate issues from grammar, which is more about the skeletal structure of utterances.  However, despite being distinct, the three areas of grammar, mechanics, and style often overlap:  for example, if you fail to use a comma in a complex sentence where the subordinate clause comes first, that's an error of both grammar and mechanics.  Another example of an "overlapped error" might be "Men is an idiot."  It's a spelling error (mechanics), but also a singular/plural error that leads to an error in subject-verb agreement (grammar), and it can also be considered a word-choice error (diction).

So all things being equal, I'd rather be known as a language scold or, yes, as a language Nazi if you prefer.  And, no:  this doesn't mean that I see myself as churning out picture-perfect sentences as if I were a robot.  I screw up, too, and whenever a gaffe happens, it's embarrassing.  But I think that's what separates a language scold like me from the hoi polloi:  I get embarrassed, but most people don't give a rat's ass about the quality of their self-expression, and that's a real shame.  The operating principle, for such people, seems to be, "Bleh... that's what editors are for."  It's the same mentality as is found among those who needlessly litter at parks, on trails, and at campgrounds:  "There are people who'll clean that up."  It's a service-economy mindset, but applied to language:  someone will clean my prose up and make me look good.  (I wrote about this phenomenon eleven years ago.)  The problem, though, is that while such people supposedly leave the cleaning-up to others, they actually resent being corrected, and they don't take correction humbly.**


*UPDATE:  the comment is now visible on my desktop as well.

**If the correction is made in a terse, arrogant, mean-spirited manner, then resentment is understandable.  Sometimes, though, the correction is done in a kind and constructive way, but the recipient of the correction is so oversensitive that s/he perceives the correction as an attack (if I'm honest, then I have to admit I've been guilty of this myself).


John Mac said...

Well, I always appreciate it when you come by to do some cleaning at my place. I'll let out an eke if you altar that behavior!

As to the substance of your point, at least in my case, it's not an issue of not caring as much as it is sloppiness. Sometimes the message from my brain to my fingers gets garbled. I'll think "altar" and my hands hear "alter". You should see the shit I catch when I do my hurried proof-read prior to posting. I can and should do better, and this post is a good reminder that it is worth the effort.

John Mac said...

Uh oh. This is going to make your head explode:

Kevin Kim said...

Interesting. But to me, sloppiness comes from a lack of care. Care more, and the sloppiness goes away.

Yeah, I've been following the "new words added to the dictionary" trend for a while. It's fodder for the whole "prescriptivism vs. descriptivism" debate. Is the dictionary merely a reflection of the state of current language (descriptivism), or is it an authority on the language (prescriptivism)? The practical answer is probably "both."