Language Lounge

A Monthly Column for Word Lovers

I May Not Know Grammar, But I Know What I Like

About six weeks ago, and very unusually, the name Robert Lowth appeared on subsequent days in two different media outlets. The first was on February 12, when Chi Luu, writing in JSTOR Daily ("where news meets its scholarly match") mentioned Lowth in her article Black English Matters. The next day, "Johnson", who writes on language for the Economist, devoted much of their column to observations on the unfortunate habit of disparaging others for their failure to model "proper" English.

Robert Lowth - via ArtUK

Lowth was a pathfinder in the activity of criticizing others' language use and he seems to have licensed that activity to all of us English speakers who have come after him. It's hard to know if there's a connection between these near simultaneous contemporary mentions of Lowth in the media, but it's interesting to note that a now largely forgotten poet, scholar, and bishop of the Church of England should spring luridly to life, even if only briefly.

Lowth is noteworthy for authoring an influential (though often misguided) prescriptive textbook, A Short Introduction to English Grammar (published in 1762). But he is remembered as being the archetype of a cultural role that is still with us today: the grammar nazi. That may seem like an oddly inappropriate epithet but it has found a niche in usage (witness nearly 7 million hits in Google). That is probably because it gives us a way to characterize a single individual who belongs to the nebulous force of grammar police (a staggering 77 million+ hits in Google).

Whence arises the motive in human nature to harshly judge the grammatical missteps of others and to suggest that such failings constitute anything worse than a peccadillo or forgivable frailty? It's especially odd that the habit persists when many such judgments arise not because the targeted utterance or usage is ungrammatical or incorrect, but rather because the one who judges it has a deficit in knowledge or understanding.

I am reminded of an observation made by Lady Susan, an early Jane Austen character: "Where there is a disposition to dislike, a motive will never be wanting." Dislike provides an atmosphere in which criticism arises easily. Criticizing the substance of someone's speech or writing may require careful thought and analysis, and it runs the risk of exposing the critic's own prejudices. Criticizing someone's style, on the other hand, is conveniently easy and ideally reflects nothing on the part of the critic other than their watchful editorial eye and their superior knowledge of language. Or so the critic would hope.

The conditions under which we produce speech today are remarkably little changed from the 18th century: By way of a nearly miraculous coordination of muscles in the throat, mouth, and lips, we convert a flow of air into highly varied and subtly different sounds. These issue from our mouths and are decoded as complex messages by those who hear them. Nothing has changed the easy functioning of this astonishing mechanism in the 300 years since Lowth pondered English grammar.

The way we communicate in writing today, however, is vastly changed. The 18th century had handwriting and the possibility of transforming a tiny fraction of handwriting into a permanent record by way of the laborious process of typesetting and printing. Today, we carry around computers in our pockets that can instantly transform our speech into captured text. We also have fairly reliable writing aids built into all of our devices that will remind us when we are misspelling a word and warn us that we may have committed a grammatical error. Our pocket, laptop, and desktop devices can even suggest to us a form of words to complete an expression that conforms to the way thousands of others have done this in the past, thus assuring us that what we might say at least has the imprimatur of precedent. In light of these technological advances, should we be less tolerant of our fellow speakers' failures to model language correctly?

I would say no, because I don't think it was ever a very good idea to make someone's (mis)use of language a basis for criticism. But there's an even better reason to desist when you would call attention to what you perceive as a misuse, or a slip of the tongue or pen; you might just be wrong, and in any case you will probably not be perceived as someone we all ought to listen to.

A great advantage that we moderns have over Bishop Lowth and his descendants in temperament is the advances that linguistics and dialectology made in the 20th century and continue to make today. It's now accepted, on the basis of evidence in the great volumes of captured text we now have, that dialects within a language vary considerably in lexis, grammar, and syntax. So the "right" and uniformly consistent way of saying something in a particular dialect may not agree with the way you say it or the way you approve of. That doesn't make it wrong; it just makes it different.

This seems to be an especially hard pill to swallow for speakers of a language's most prominent or most prestigious dialects. In the UK, that would be something along the lines of RP combined with British SE. In the United States, it would be GenAm, preferably in a relatively unmarked accent, like the Midland one. Whatever virtues speakers of these prominent dialects may be deficient in — education, understanding, or compassion, for example — they seem to perceive themselves superior in the matter of language, and thus qualified to judge usages that fall outside what they know to be correct and proper.

We'll all be doing each other a great favor by paying most of our attention to the substance of what others say, least attention to the way they say it. The latter is a matter of great interest to linguists, dialectologists, phonologists, and other earnest students of language; but it should not present more than a point of passing interest to others.

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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