I saw a remark the other day that the folks at Language Log are given to peeving about peevers, and it occurred to me afresh how much misunderstanding remains among evidently educated people about what linguists are up to when they expose bogus prescriptivism and peevery.

This is not to say that there have never been cranks hawking extreme views among linguists; academic fauna do not always breed true. But I have met Ben Zimmer and Mark Liberman and have corresponded with Arnold Zwicky, all of whom are fine fellows who would never pull a chair from under you or water the liquor.

They, like lexicographers, are empiricists: They identify and classify what they find, and one of the things they come across is that a great deal of cherished prescriptivism is a house built on sand. They also appear to be of a good-humored libertarian bent: If you prefer to use none always as a singular pronoun, or stick with everyone ... his, or eschew terminal prepositions, or avoid what you wrongly imagine to be passive constructions, you're free to go ahead. It's your language, too. But they will challenge and check you when you insist on elevating your personal stylistic preferences to the stature of rules of English.

It's not clear to me why people, including fellow copy editors who appear to think that Moses also carried the AP Stylebook down from the summit of Sinai, have such difficulty differentiating between grammar and style, or are so susceptible to tinpot authorities. The aftereffect of bad pedagogy, perhaps. But writing can be perfectly grammatical and still be wordy, superficial, dull, and dishonest. Or simply in a register inappropriate for the subject or the audience.

(Speaking of register, you keep coming across these Gotchas! that linguists use standard written English, as if this exposed some kind of hypocrisy. Of course they use standard written English; they are academics writing for an educated audience. You expected charades, maybe? Holding the view that what is called black English is an independent dialect of English with its own grammar does not compel one to write or speak it. Would you expect an expert in classical Latin to write only in Latin?)

The sensible thing, if people only* were sensible, would be for those of us who operate as prescriptivists would take advantage of linguists' discoveries of how people actually speak and write English and how the language is shifting, distinguish between rules and stylistic conventions, examine those stylistic conventions to determine which ones are effective, and give writers sound advice instead of diktats and ukases.

 

*You could insist that were only sensible is the only correct way to word that sentence; you could also be an ass.