I was surprised, as many regular New Yorker readers were, to see a long essay by Joan Acocella, “The Language Wars,” in the magazine’s May 14 issue. Acocella is the New Yorker’s long-time dance critic; I hadn’t known she was also a language maven. Yet there she was, using a new book by Henry Hitchings, The Language Wars: A History of Proper English, as an excuse to disparage language descriptivists—that is to say, pretty much all contemporary linguists and lexicographers—as flame-throwing anarchists who are also, paradoxically, elitists. (Or as the New Yorker prefers it, élitists.) One of the descriptivists she singled out, Steven Pinker, wrote a stinging response that has been published in the current issue.*
But apparently that wasn’t enough merde-stirring for the New Yorker. Yesterday, the magazine’s Page-Turner blog published a post by Ryan Bloom with the finger-wagging title “Inescapably, You’re Judged by Your Language.” After a pass at talking about appropriate register and dialect (“Know thy audience, know thy friends”), Bloom cuts to the chase. “Why should we bother to learn prescriptive English—the grade-school rules—if it isn’t our natural dialect?” he asks, rhetorically. Because:
Repugnant as it may be, the simple answer is that we need to learn prescriptive English because that’s the way the people in power communicate. As far as daily survival is concerned, it doesn’t matter whether the origins of this linguistic power structure are racist, classist, or élitist, or whether they’re based on the whims of dead white males. This is how the system works right now, today, and in order to best get the attention of those in power, to begin to effect change, we must be able to use their dialect. We must know their rules.
I’m neither a linguist nor a lexicographer, so I’m not qualified to talk about descriptivism and prescriptivism with any authority.** But I am qualified to tell Ryan Bloom that if he thinks “prescriptive English” is “the way the people in power communicate,” he and I are living on different planets. Maybe “prescriptive English” is how the powerful people at the New Yorker speak and write. But as far as I can tell from my sorties into other corridors of power, it sure ain’t how “the system works right now.”
You want to know how “people in power”—company presidents, board chairmen, politicians, and other members of the .01 percent—communicate? I’ll tell you. They say and write things like “between you and I” and “please circle back to Fred and myself.” They write “alot” and “alright.” They “hearken back.” They use comma splices. They confuse your and you’re, rein and reign. They’ve never met a Business Concept that didn’t merit Promotion through Capitalization. They smiled benignly upon the 43rd president of the United States—a former person of power—when he publicly said misunderestimate and Grecians. They didn’t see what the fuss was all about.
Need more evidence? Listen to Ursula M. Burns, the CEO and chairman of Xerox, in a recent interview with NPR:
What I found there was an organization that accepted me for whom I was.
Xerox ranks #127 in the Fortune 500. Ms. Burns has a master’s degree in engineering from Columbia. I’d say she is one of those “people in power” Ryan Bloom is talking about. And yet she used whom incorrectly (and quite emphatically) in the interview. I don’t know why. Maybe she once learned a “rule” about whom following prepositions (as it does in “for whom the bell tolls”). Maybe, like many people in and out of power, she thinks whom just sounds ritzier than plain old who. She’s doing it wrong, but who’s going to tell her?
I say all this not to shame, blame, or point with alarm. (OK, just a little.) I’m just saying that Ryan Bloom has been misinformed. To all appearances, knowledge of proper “prescriptivist” grammar is not a prerequisite for survival at Xerox. Or, like it or not, at most other companies. Other things matter more: enthusiasm, connections, the right degree from the right university, the willingness to work nights and weekends. “Correct” language? That’s for pedants and peevers, not for American go-getters and success-seekers.
I do maintain that there are good reasons—clarity and consistency foremost among them—for mastering some rules of language usage. But the notion that we plebes need to speak and write “correctly” so as to impress the higher-ups is simply nonsensical. The rich and powerful may have more money and political clout, but when it comes to “correct” speech and writing they’re as clueless and error-prone as everyone else.
*Someone else wrote a completely bonkers letter that bemoaned usage “horrors” such as “Did you finish your homework yet?” and claimed that “a locution like ‘exact same’” is “indicative of the depth to which American English has sunk.” I kid you not. (One Language Log commenter suggested that the letter was an example of Poe’s Law, which states that without signals like emoticons, it’s difficult to tell whether extremism on the Internet is sincere or satirical.)
**The linguists at Language Log have done their usual excellent job analyzing the current brouhaha: see Mark Liberman (here and here) on the Acocella story and Ben Zimmer on Bloom’s blog post. See also Jessica Love’s essay on “what the New Yorker got wrong” in The American Scholar. (Update: Read Steven Pinker’s response to Acocella, “False Fronts in the Language Wars: Why New Yorker Writers and Others Keep Pushing Bogus Controversies,” published May 31 in Slate.)
You're right. Yesterday a Canadian federal cabinet minister said that he was "dealing with a law that was wrote sixty years ago."
Posted by: Tim H | May 30, 2012 at 08:11 AM
Spot on, Nancy. Great post.
Posted by: Jonathon | May 30, 2012 at 09:56 AM
Great contribution to the debate, Nancy! This topic is not just linguistic - it reflects the claim that the "good language" preserves the state first expressed by Herder in the18th century Germany.
Posted by: Mima Dedaic | May 31, 2012 at 06:13 AM
I agree with the general thrust of your argument, but I think you too easily discount the way that poor language usage can undermine credibility. You bring up the case of George W. Bush and how his flubs didn't prevent him from earning the presidency. But he was also often mocked as a dumb. Whether he was or wasn't isn't my point here. The perception that he wasn't smart undermined his credibility as a leader on both the U.S. and the world stages. As a result, he had a harder time reaching his political goals. He was very unpopular when he left the presidency, and it's notable that the next election brought in a president known for his mastery of language. So while I agree that the business and political worlds ("the people of power") ultimately don't pay anywhere near as much attention to prescriptivist rules as writers and other grammar nerds do, I do think good communication skills play an important role in leadership.
Posted by: Henry Alpert | May 31, 2012 at 07:30 AM
Nice post, Nancy.
Ms. Burns's hypercorrect 'whom' may have been motivated, at least in part, by its occurrence right after a preposition — or for one or several of the reasons Arnold Zwicky mentions here:
Posted by: Stan | May 31, 2012 at 07:32 AM
@Henry: I don’t dispute the value of good communication. I do dispute Bloom’s argument that it’s the lingua franca of the powerful, and that the hoi polloi needs to master it to be in with the in crowd. I wish it were so, but I don’t see much evidence of it. Indeed, I see almost the opposite – in corporate America, communication skills tend to be regarded as an arcane specialty. And writers and editors are among the first to be laid off in a “rightsizing” event.
Yeah, I’m a big old cynic.
But thanks for fighting the good fight! And for reading my blog.
Posted by: Nancy Friedman | May 31, 2012 at 07:56 AM
Ultimately, the real issue is that the New Yorker likes to think of itself as relevant.
Posted by: IVV | May 31, 2012 at 06:57 PM
Very interesting post. Management speak presents a whole chamber of horrors that I attribute to a culture in which everyone is afraid of correcting those above them in the hierarchy. Presents many dangers. Remember how Hitler began issuing nonsensical orders because everyone was afraid to give him the bad news than divisions he was ordering didn't exist any more. When underlings never challenge fuzzy ideas indicated by fuzzy language, the organization is headed down a very dangerous road.
Posted by: Kitchenmudge.wordpress.com | June 03, 2012 at 08:07 AM