on Proper Usage

Posted by @ 11:30 am on January 23rd, 2009

Steven Pinker had a piece in the NYT yesterday about John Roberts’ flub of the Oath of Office, and why, from a grammatical standpoint, it doesn’t matter. He argues that the long-standing injunction against infinitive splitting is “a myth.”

Language pedants hew to an oral tradition of shibboleths that have no basis in logic or style, that have been defied by great writers for centuries, and that have been disavowed by every thoughtful usage manual. Nonetheless, they refuse to go away, perpetuated by the Gotcha! Gang and meekly obeyed by insecure writers.

I thought it was a pretty interesting argument, and I’m always glad to see a shibboleth overturned, so I forwarded the link to my friend Amy McDaniel, who of all my friends is probably the most interested in such things, as well as the best at them. (In addition to being an expert grammarian, she’s also an expert on food, and you can/should check out her contributions to the Slashfood blog.)  She replied to my message with a one-liner: “Steven Pinker is an enemy of proper usage,” to which I replied that “his insidious claims are deeply seductive.” I imagine at this point she realized I don’t know anything about Steven Pinker–or as much as I should about grammar–and so she sent me a passage of David Foster Wallace’s “Tense Present,” wherein DFW critiques Pinker’s “descriptivist” approach to usage. The essay, which originally appeared in Harper’s in 2001, can be read in its entirety here, or you can find just the part that Amy sent me to settle the matter pasted in after the jump.


Wallace on Pinker:

As Descriptivist Steven Pinker puts it, “When a scientist considers all the high-tech mental machinery needed to order words into everyday sentences, prescriptive rules are, at best, inconsequential decorations.”


This argument is not the barrel of drugged trout that Methodological Descriptivism was, but it’s still vulnerable to some objections. The first one is easy. Even if it’s true that we’re all wired with a Universal Grammar, it simply doesn’t follow that all prescriptive rules are superfluous. Some of these rules really do seem to serve clarity, and precision. The injunction against twoway adverbs (“People who eat this often get sick”) is an obvious example, as are rules about other kinds of misplaced modifiers (“There are many reasons why lawyers lie, some better than others”) and about relative pronouns’ proximity to the nouns they modify (“She’s the mother of an infant daughter who works twelve hours a day”).

Granted the Philosophical Descriptivist can question just how absolutely necessary these rules are, it’s quite likely that a recipient of clauses like the above could figure out what the sentences mean from the sentences on either side or from the “overall context” or whatever. A listener can usually figure out what I really mean when I misuse infer for imply or say indicate for say, too. But many of these solecisms require at least a couple extra nanoseconds of cognitive effort, a kind of rapid sift-and-discard process, before the recipient gets it. Extra work. It’s debatable just how much extra work, but it seems indisputable that we put some extra neural burden on the recipient when we fail to follow certain conventions. W/r/t confusing clauses like the above, it simply seems more “considerate” to follow the rules of correct SWE … just as it’s more “considerate” to de-slob your home before entertaining guests or to brush your teeth before picking up a date. Not just more considerate but more respectful somehow — both of your listener and of what you’re trying to get across. As we sometimes also say about elements of fashion and etiquette, the way you use English “Makes a Statement” or “Sends a Message” — even though these Statements/Messages often have nothing to do with the actual information you’re trying to transmit.


We’ve now sort of bled into a more serious rejoinder to Philosophical Descriptivism: From the fact that linguistic communication is not strictly dependent on usage and grammar it does not necessarily follow that the traditional rules of usage and grammar are nothing but “inconsequential decorations.” Another way to state the objection is that just because something is “decorative” does not necessarily make it “inconsequential.” Rhetorically, Pinker’s flip dismissal is bad tactics, for it invites the very question it begs: inconsequential to whom?

Tags: , , ,