He takes care lest by a slip of the tongue he use the ablative instead of the accusative for ‘among men,’ but is unconcerned that by the fury of his mind he might cast a man out from among men” (Conf. 1.18.29). The particular pet peeves of the self-appointed language police have changed since the fifth century, but St. Augustine would surely recognize the same phenomenon active today. He might conclude, though, that we’ve sunk to a new low: today’s peevers tend not only to lack charity, but to lack even a good grasp of the language they imagine themselves to be defending.
This lack of both charity and understanding in matters grammatical has rarely been so obvious as in the song “Word Crimes,” part of Weird Al’s latest contribution to our musical culture. Written as a parody of “Blurred Lines,” the song has little in common with its model other than a borrowed melody and rhythm: Weird Al here is not winking at moral grey areas but sternly defending a norm and heaping righteous scorn on any who diverge from it.
For the work of a humorist, it’s surprisingly humorless. Offhand citations of grammatical terms are interspersed with unsmiling criticism: one who doesn’t “know how to conjugate” or says “I could care less” is said to have been“raised in a sewer,” called a “moron,” invited to “get out of the gene pool,” and is otherwise belittled and denigrated. The joke, such as it is, consists in mockery of those stupider than we.
But even that could be justified or at least overlooked if something of value were being defended. Instead, we see confusion and error about what grammar is and what grammar is for, publicized by grammar’s self-professed champions.
It’s sad, really; grammar is so much more than that. Grammar has little to do with choosing among homophones or correctly placing punctuation or avoiding abbreviations associated with the youth and their texting and Twitter. Now there’s a place for discussion of spelling and word choice and other questions of usage, and one doesn’t have to agree with the sublimely SNOOTy cynicism of a David Foster Wallace to agree that it’s important for the style to suit the medium and the subject. But to define a style is not to describe a grammar, and to discuss the appropriateness of a given style is not to define the limits of “proper English,” as if there were room in life for only one mode of speaking.
The more someone actually cares about language, the less patience they’ll have for groundless and invented rules posing as grammar. They will welcome “split infinitives” and the use of “will” in the first person just as they might welcome freedom from a long oppression under arbitrary laws. They are confident that the singular “they” is no more a plot to erase gender norms in America than the absence of gendered pronouns in Farsi is a feminist scheme in Iran.
In the absence of artificially invented rules about language, those who are willing to pay attention will see not anarchy, but an almost miraculous rule-following nature. They will see that even non-standard constructions, even marginal and stigmatized dialects, and even dogespeak exhibit consistent, elegant, and often staggeringly complex rules of their own. For the true lover of language, these exotic corners of our language are not errors to be condemned, but new frontiers to be discovered, new plot twists in the millennia-long story of language, new developments in an organic tradition that connects us to the first humans.
Now a garden-variety internet pedant or Strunk & White fundamentalist could concede all this, admit that their “proper English” is one variety among others, and still claim that it was the only variety they cared to speak, or write, or take seriously. That’s fine; there’s no arguing about taste.
But if such persons claim to be not defenders of baseless prejudices but fans of language, it’s hard not to conclude that they’re wilfully missing out. Why should the rules for the subjunctive be any more interesting than those for the use of the singular “they”? Why should the rules written in a textbook have any more legitimacy than the rules written on the mind of every fluent speaker?
The right answer to complaints like those in “Word Crimes” is to take language more seriously, not less. It is to rise up from narrow-minded nitpicking to a higher pedantry, a pedantry that sees grammar not as a cage by which language can be contained but as a yet-incomplete map by which it can be explored. In seeking to explain rather than condemn unexpected usages, this higher pedantry represents a much more charitable approach to linguistic variation. And for those motivated by philology more than snobbery, it’s also a lot of fun.
Kevin Gallagher writes from New York. Image from Wikimedia Commons.