I've been writing about language usage for the last two weeks, spurred on by Steven Pinker's critique of a New Yorker piece on the divide between prescriptivists and descriptivists. Last week, I argued that patterns of speech are not just abstract tools; they actually constitute part of our bodily identity, which complicates claims about what constitutes good speech. This post looks at how we can still probe language and give it some measure, even if the tools we have are as culturally particular as Samuel Clemens's psuedonym.
How you speak lets the world know who you are. Even if you switch accents as often as this kid, you reveal your origins with the idioms you use. You could be a non-native speaker, a b-school d-bag, a busted urbanite, a grifter whose slithering turns of phrase endear you to anyone with a susceptible ear. However you speak, we have the sense, egalitarian-minded that we are, that it is illiberal to judge you for idiosyncrasies outside your control—your place of birth, your heritage, your parents’ linguistic tics.
This is why language standards are such difficult pancakes.
Yet, there is the problem of taste. Sometimes you have to wonder why certain gestures really hit you in the gut but glance right off other people. There's no single metric of taste, but thankfully there’s something better: understanding the process through which aesthetic judgments are affirmed or disavowed. You can account for taste, even if it involves complex exchange rates.
Here's how it works. Taste is at once an inversion and a strengthening, a way of self-reflectively relating your own appreciation of a thing to that of others—specifically, the peers whose opinion you wish to garner, passively or not. So when you're looking at a piece of art, you gague your own reaction to it and simultaneously measure that feeling against that of the people to whom you'd like to appeal—in both senses: you want your judgment to be appealing to them, and you appeal for their support in having made it. In doing so, you're providing judgments about things that other people use to inform their own tastes. Sort of like dumping a bucket of sand onto the beach on which we're all making mud castles: it's good to have dirty hands.
Once you realize that taste is endlessly being reshaped through the intentional effort of many people, yourself included, you're all set to take on prigs and pedants. Suddenly, their bugbears are mere historical contingencies. "That" and "which," for instance: someone at some point assured us yanks that these were distinct, even though the record of written and spoken American English upholds no distinction. Count it another quixotic case of prickly genteel folk attempting to swim against the linguistic tide.
Speaking of "quixotic," consider a cherished old volume of mine, Fowler's Modern English Usage. The second edition, printed in 1965, calls out people who pronounce Quixote as it would have been pronounced in Spanish for "didacticism." Now, a mere half-century later, people who don’t give a Spanish pronunciation to Cervantes’ character would almost certainly stand out as unschooled.
Other manuals fare poorer. Strunk and White's The Elements of Style wears its convictions on its spine: here is a unified manual of stylistic concerns, rendered in their simplest components. Unfortunately, the book itself is riddled with tips and tics that are just plain wrong.
Garner's Modern American Usage values communication over avoidance, and even helps people know exactly how out of touch their grammatical foibles are. While verging on the pedantic, it has no pretensions about preserving an ahistorical version of language. For words like "enormity,"famously misused (or was it?) by President Obama, Garner’s includes a scale laying out how acceptable the usage error is. You can feel safe indulging your peevological urges if something has low broad acceptance, but once something is as gone as the distinction between nauseous and nauseated, you better let it go.
Usage guides, and the people who love them, have got to take into account the way language evolves. After all, we just want to communicate as clearly and effectively as possible—which means in full awareness of the way language is made on all of our tongues. Hopefully, we can agree on that.