In Defense of Grammar

Hi, I’m Tim, and I’m a language pedant.

I’m a corrector; you know, one of those guys that corrects you when you say something incorrectly. Think you can get away with disinterested/uninterested mishaps around me? Just ask Rick Reilly. Use reference as a verb when you mean refer and you’ll get a scolding. Same goes for legitimize instead of legitimate (that’s a long a sound at the end: legitimāte). Don’t get me started on the subjunctive mood. I prefer my friends be accurate there, and I don’t think this is particularly unique of me because nothing can be particularly unique.

The Elements of Style sits within reach on a shelf of my desk; I don’t have time to go walking to the other side of the room (and the real bookcase) in case of a grammatical emergency. In my abandoned novel, William Strunk, Jr. was a prominent character.*

*Probably one of the reasons for the adjective “abandoned.”

Although I’m what most would call a stickler, there are some suggestions I don’t always listen to. And clearly, I like to audaciously flaunt some of the basics. Can’t end with a preposition? Please. No starting with a conjunction? Ever hear of transitions? I can’t remember the last time I didn’t split an infinitive. This isn’t Latin.

Nevertheless, Ammon Shea’s attack on “language pedants”—his words—in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine felt personal. Shea expresses his frustration with “inveterate correctors” and reveals his own plan to topple them: via precedent!

For instance, I have occasionally been informed that my use of the word stupider, as opposed to the somewhat ungainly phrase more stupid, makes me sound…plus stupide. I used to cringe in shame and embarrassment when this was pointed out to me, until I discovered that Ezra Pound also used the word stupider, in a letter that he wrote to William Carlos Williams in 1920: “If you weren’t stupider than a mud-duck you would know that every kick to bad writing is by that much a help for the good.”* And so now, rather than feel like an uneducated boor when someone calls me out for my use of this word, I can tell my antagonist I am referencing Pound.

*At least he used “weren’t.”

The problem here, beyond relying on the ungodly Ezra Pound for anything worthwhile,* is that there are precedents for EVERYTHING. Shea’s method doesn’t just work to justify the use of borderline acceptable grammar; it justifies the use of any phrasing possible in the English language. You saying me can’t use me as a subject? Ralph Wiggum begs to differ: “Me fail English? That’s unpossible!” Where the verb at in my sentence? Direct your query to Cleavon Little, who asked in Blazing Saddles, “Where the white women at?” Have a problem with the accurate of my use of parts of speech? I believe R.E.M. settled that issue when Michael Stipe sang “Leaving was never my proud.”

*How can Shea not see the hypocrisy in alluding to Pound to strike back at condescending language pedants?

Now, Shea is clearly tongue-in-cheek at times in his article, and so am I in my critique. For one, he references writers such as Pound, Shakespeare, and Jane Austen to justify his usage errors while I went with Ralph Wiggum, Cleavon Little, and an R.E.M. lyric. But the problem here is that the demarcation of expertise is unclear. Pound is a poet; by virtue of this, he was rarely required to use proper grammar.* Shakespeare basically wrote a different language. And Jane Austen was a woman.**

*How to prove this: Google Pound’s famous poem “In a Station of the Metro” and find the verb.

**Kidding! I haven’t read enough Austen to condemn her grammar; like Shakespeare, though, she wrote in a different era of the English language. Shea goes to some lengths to explain how dumb it is to ignore the language’s evolution before doing so himself with his examples.

It’s difficult indeed to discern who qualifies as a grammar “expert.” George Washington capitalized his nouns, and Samuel Johnson—the guy who wrote the dictionary—spelled “public” with a –k. What I’m trying to say is that if Shea is advocating a descriptivist view of grammar—in which we base our grammar on others’ grammar—we can’t discriminate who those “others” are. We can’t choose a descriptivist grammar based on the syntax of Ezra Pound; rather, it’s one based on the syntax of everyone. And in that case, we better be prepared to accept “Imma”* as an acceptable means of communicating “I’m going to.”

*I’m admittedly a little lost on whether “Imma” includes an apostrophe. “I’mma” doesn’t exactly inspire me with confidence.

Of course, strict grammatical prescriptivism—in which we base our grammar on predetermined rules—isn’t ideal, either, because it entirely ignores the practice of grammar in favor of its theory.* I do, however, want to stress the sanctity of grammar’s rules. Grammar governs the way we communicate in the same way traffic laws govern how we drive and Leviticus governs how Jews eat. Just as with any system of laws, there are certain rules that will inevitably be breached, and more or less with impunity (i.e. rolling through a STOP sign late at night). In grammar, we often resort to colloquial turns of phrase that aren’t correct but still translate our meaning accurately: I’m not gonna rail against anyone for running words together or impulsively adding “like” and “you know” and “I mean” to everything they say. I mean, I do that like all the time, you know?

*I am far from qualified to break down this debate, especially when it’s already been done. See “Authority and American Usage” by David Foster Wallace.

My issue is that most people believe this grammatical leniency extends to speech as a whole—that as long as what we say approximates our meaning, it’s acceptable. After all, who gets hurt when Joan Osborne sings “What if God was one of us?” It certainly seems as if it’s a victimless grammatical crime, but note that Osborne’s neglect of the subjunctive opens up two possible meanings to the lyric: 1. What if God had been or used to be one of us?* 2. What if God is one of us? On the other hand, properly using the subjunctive—What if God were one of us?—would clear up the confusion; the question would simply ask, hypothetically, how life would be different in the unlikely scenario that God currently walked the Earth as a human being.

*A question that this author does not think requires an “if.”

This, I know, reeks just a bit of pettiness and reading too far into more lyrics by 1990s alternative rockers. But it shows how a minor and prima facie harmless mistake can lead to pretty significant ambiguity when we don’t consider all the implications of what we communicate (I doubt Joan Osborne was actually attempting an anti-Jesus stand, although that’s what her grammar points to). Unfortunately, such ambiguity is rarely confined to things as big-picture insignificant as a one-hit wonder.

Think of the consequences of ignoring the subtleties of word choice. If enough people use “disinterested” when they mean “un-”, we lose the real meaning of “disinterested” entirely because it’s impossible to tell what people actually mean by the word: “The teacher said she was disinterested in our argument, so why is she now ignoring it?” We have both words for a reason.

Similarly, if “decimate” is acceptable for meanings beyond “to reduce by one-tenth,” then it won’t be taken for its precise meaning when we want to say that something has been reduced by one-tenth. And the reason we need adverbs to modify ”unique” these days is because we use the adjective way too much. Letting minor errors accrete erodes at the foundation of words’ meanings and, yes, their uniqueness. Just look at flammable and inflammable.*

*Again from The Simpsons, this time from Dr. Nick Riviera: “Inflammable means flammable? What a country!”

Speaking properly and using the right words prevent ambiguity from corrupting our language and its main purpose of accurately conveying information. Communication is our primary means of forming relationships with other human beings; it is the basis of how we teach, how we learn, and how we express ourselves. What could be more destructive to society than the corruption of language? In the words of Thomas Reid, “There is no greater impediment to the advancement of knowledge than the ambiguity of words.” Such linguistic corruption destroys meaning and alters perception, eventually leaving the whole world mute.

7 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by F.P. on October 12, 2009 at 3:11 PM

    An interesting note about the word “disinterested”: denotatively, it actually can mean uninterested. This isn’t meant to refute your point, but rather to point out that even our trusted dictionaries are playing fast and loose with their entries. I’m sure that there is plenty of precedent for disinterested in the sense of “uninterested”, but to formally acknowledge and thereby allow that meaning reduces the utility of “disinterested” and “uninterested”, as you wrote.

    My problem with the “unique” example is that some things ARE more unique than others, in the sense that they are distinguished by a greater number of characteristics or distinguished to a greater degree. For example, shouldn’t we be allowed to say that a hypothetical unicorn would be a unique creature, but that a hypothetical griffin would be MORE unique? I mean, come on, a unicorn is a horse with a horn. Unique, yes, but not impressively so.

    I’m certainly sympathetic to the idea that unique means “one of a kind”, and therefore something either qualifies or doesn’t. But as you say:

    In grammar, we often resort to colloquial turns of phrase that aren’t correct but still translate our meaning accurately.

    If you say a woman is “very pregnant”, there’s no ambiguity there, even if there’s a potential objection. We all understand that phrase to mean that a woman is exhibiting symptoms of pregnancy to an extensive degree. I believe it was Steven Wright (I’m looking at you, John S) who complained about the phrase “a slow death”, because the act of death happens in a single instant (you’re alive, you’re alive, you’re alive, you’re dead). I think the problem with restricting the modification of “unique” is that it opens a floodgate of restrictions that ultimately inhibit clarity and expressiveness. For example, can you really be “very content”? You either are or you’re not. What about satisfied? When we say that the Lakers “decimated” the Magic, can we explain that we were just saying something metaphorically, even if our figure of speech wasn’t actually a metaphor?

    I’m actually not making arguments with those examples, but just trying to provoke thought. Should the words “satisfaction” or “unique” represent some type of gradient, or an actual status that either is or is not attained? If practice heavily favors one, then our theory should be edited to allow that.

    I’m not sure that we take a net loss on utility or take a net gain on ambiguity by allowing words like “unique” or “pregnant” to be modified. Thoughts?


  2. Posted by John S on October 12, 2009 at 3:27 PM

    Yeah, I think F.P. makes some good points. Regarding the “disinterested/uninterested” divide, I think it’s more complicated than one is right and other is wrong. For one, the prefix “dis” is generally used to simply negate the meaning: displeased, disconnected, disassociate, etc. Therefore, it’s perfectly understandable and reasonable to use “disinterested” to mean “uninterested.” On some level, it creates MORE ambiguity and not less to use “dis” to mean something that “dis” doesn’t usually mean (I’m aware, of course, that “disinterest” means “without an interest” or “without a stake” and not “without a concern,” but why not just use the more clear “neutral”?). The only reason is has this particular meaning is because some authority (dictionary, precedent, etc.) gave it to the word–except F.P. points out that dictionaries now carry BOTH meanings, anyway.

    As for the “very pregnant” comment, I don’t think anyone would have a problem with that phrase; it’s meaning is clear. Similarly, I can imagine some scenarios in which degrees of uniqueness can be illustrative. The problem is that more often than not, it’s used in ambiguous and unclear ways: “That was one of the most unique things I’ve ever seen.” That doesn’t add any extra meaning, it simply confuses “unique” with “interesting” or “unusual,” when those words are perfectly acceptable. Unless you are, say, comparing different mythical creatures, modifying “unique” subtracts from that intended meaning rather than amplifying it.

    The problem, as Tim points out, is that trying to add MORE meaning to things like “unique” or “disinterested” ultimately loses meaning: “The reason we need adverbs to modify ‘unique’ these days is because we use the adjective way too much.” Most of the time, when people say “unique” or “disinterested” or “decimated” or “very satisfied,” etc., there is a better/more accurate/less ambiguous ways to say what they mean. It’s really not that important whether or not the way we use words is technically correct (especially in spoken language), but it IS important whether or not words carry the intended meaning.


  3. […] fair to say that some clutch situations are more clutch than others (“clutchness” differs from “uniqueness” in that respect). But evaluating the relevant scales and magnitudes is not clear-cut and differs for every fan and […]


  4. Posted by James Schneider on October 14, 2009 at 2:13 PM

    i think its imm’a


  5. […] been a while since we linked to any David Foster Wallace stuff, or any grammar staff (RIP Safire), but here’s a little of both: A former student of Wallace’s posted a brief […]


  6. […] A campaign against NPI’s beloved Strunk and White has begun! John S reviewed The Elements of Style last summer while Tim once divulged that William Strunk was, at one point, a principal character in his abandoned novel. […]


  7. […] at NPI aren’t fans of this “fail” meme (we like grammar, remember?), but here are the 50 biggest hip-hop “fails” of […]


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