James Harbeck on grammar doctors: “Some pour too much scorn on those who break the rules”

From an article on bbc.com by James Harbeck titled “Why all English speakers worry about slipping up: The English language is confusing, inconsistent and easy to muddle. But some pour too much scorn on those who break the rules”:

Since Jonathan Swift’s 1712 Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue, two centuries of self-appointed correctors and improvers of English usage – such as Robert Lowth, HW Fowler, George Orwell, Kingsley Amis, Simon Heffer, Lynne Truss, and Neville Gwynne – have decried the decadent state of our language and instructed people on how to use it better….

They have helped enforce agreement that there should be a standard version of the language. They have not, however, managed to set the exact details of that standard. They have not even agreed whether long words or short ones are better. And the stream of the language has flowed on despite the damning practices prescribed by grammar doctors….

The language cannot be fixed in place, and its constant evolution does not always follow the tastes of its self-appointed guardians. Some of their proposed improvements have had inglorious careers: a rule – don’t split infinitives, don’t end sentences with prepositions, don’t start sentences with conjunctions – is decided in defiance of established usage. It is promulgated in books, taught in schools, and often used as an indicator of a writer’s level of education, yet it continues to be broken – productively by some (including many of the best writers), sloppily by others, guiltily by many.

It is at last declared not to be a real rule by authoritative guides in the later 20th Century, and yet it is still propounded by a small but truculent segment of society, who have unpleasant things to say about those who dare break it….

One important effect the English-improvers have had is on how people feel and talk about English usage. They have taught generations of English speakers that ‘bad English’ is a failure of intellectual and moral fibre….

In more recent years, writers guilty of some well-established word choices and writing habits have been called “slovenly” by Kingsley Amis; “abominable,” and “semi-literates” by Simon Heffer; “illiterate” by Neville Gwynne; and “moral weaklings” by Lynne Truss. These are terms fit for war crimes or animal cruelty, but they are applied to turns of phrase that are endorsed, or at least allowed, by the Chicago Manual of Style, The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, The New York Public Library Writer’s Guide to Style and Usage, Merriam-Webster, and the Associated Press Stylebook, all of which manage to make prescriptions without casting aspersions on the moral and intellectual character of those who do not heed them.

To be fair, these angry grammarians did not invent discrimination based on speech. Anywhere there are different varieties of a language associated with different regions and different social sets, the way you talk will show what group you belong to, and people will decide on that basis how to treat you. What these umpires of the English language have enabled and abetted is scorn based purely on details of the language itself rather than on extrinsic social differences….

Those who speak in strong terms about ill-favoured usages naturally defend their passion: “I frequently hear people pointedly aver that they ‘care about language,’” Shea writes, “which to me is simply a polite way of saying ‘I like to correct the language use of other people.’ We all care about language, some of us more than others, but the degree to which one is willing to humiliate or upbraid others should not stand as an indication of how much one cares.”…

It’s not so surprising that people over the centuries have wanted to tidy it all up. But attempts at improvement have not been unequivocally successful, to say the least, and the tone in which they have been presented has done further injury. It’s bad enough that we have to worry about being clear and consistent; thanks to the weaponisation of English grammar and vocabulary, we also have to worry about being seen as degenerate barbarian imbeciles.

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