Friday, January 16, 2009

Once I was a happy Pinkerite

Once I was a happy Pinkerite. A native speaker can no more write ungrammatically than a bird can fly “incorrectly,” I told my classes. Only Miss Thistlebottom was exercised by sins against prescriptive grammar—she and tightly clenched old fogies like William Safire and John Simon. I found the knotting of the problem in The End of the Road screamingly funny. Jacob Horner is undergoing therapy for an unnamed malady in June 1953 (shell shock from the Korean War?) when his doctor tells him that he needs a “more meaningful job” (“A career, you know. A calling. A lifework”). He directs Jacob to apply for a post at the local teachers college:

     “And what will you teach? Iconography? Automotive mechanics?”
     “English literature, I guess.”
     “No. There must be a rigid discipline, or else it will be merely an occupation, not an occupational therapy. There must be a body of laws. You mean you can’t teach plane geometry?”
     “Oh, I suppose—” . . .
     “Nonsense. Of course you can’t. Tell them you will teach grammar. English grammar.”
     “But you know, Doctor,” I ventured, “there is descriptive as well as prescriptive grammar. I mean, you mentioned a fixed body of rules.”
     “You will teach prescriptive grammar.”
     “Yes, sir.”
     “No description at all. No optional situations. Teach the rules. Teach the truth about grammar.”
The rigid discipline, the fixed body of rules, the avoidance of optional situations—here you had the effort to solve the postmodern quandary, that devaluation of all values, by an arbitrary and artificial method. I laughed and laughed.

Then I became a father. “I runned across the playground,” my son says. “Ran,” I interject. “Huh?” “Ran. ‘I ran across the playground.’ ” Later my other son says, “Daddy, I brang the thermos home.” “Brought. ‘I brought the thermos home.’ ” If they weren’t five years old they would roll their eyes and sigh heavily, “Whatever.”

Verb tenses blunt the teeth even of native speakers when they are young, but I have never heard one of my sons misuse the reflexive. In a local radio ad for the Houston Aeros, the announcer urges his listeners to tune in for the next game: “Listen to myself, M——— G———,” he says. “Listen to yourself, you maroon,” I shout at the radio. Even my two-year-old doesn’t make that mistake. “I hurt myself,” he explains when I ask why he is crying. He doesn’t say, “Myself hurt myself.”

Which suggests to me that some errors must be learned just as some verb tenses must be. If I never corrected them, I wonder, would my boys grow up saying runned and brang? Are culture and the “language instinct” really binary opposites, or does the opposition of culture to nature, as Longinus argues, belong to culture?

Jacob Horner asks his students at Wicomico State Teachers College a slightly different question. “Who’s more free in America? . . . The man who rebels against all the laws or the man who follows them so automatically that he never even has to think about them?” So Jacob (and behind him, waving shyly, John Barth) is a cultural conservative, then, “out to rescue prescriptive grammar from the clutches” of radicals? Not exactly. “[T]he greatest radical in any society,” he goes on, ”is the man who sees all the arbitrariness of the rules and social conventions, but who has such a great scorn or disregard for the society he lives in that he embraces the whole wagonload of nonsense with a smile.”

But cultural values, including the rules of grammar, only appear arbitrary, and only to grownup intellectuals. For children the case is otherwise, and those who must raise them within this society, and not just any society, discover that they must take responsibility for that fact. “The child cannot learn from scratch what took millennia to learn,” says the psychiatrist Theodore Lidz in The Origin and Treatment of Schizophrenic Disorders, “but must learn his culture’s system in order to think and communicate coherently.” A system of arbitrary values could not even be described coherently, which is why Jacob Horner’s great radical confines himself to the cultural system he has already learned.


Buce said...

A lovely passage that quotation, but I think you do not give your kids enough credit. Your kids may say "ranned" and "brang," but they do not say "Swallow" or "Thursday." Their errors are within a tight framework and represent a reasonable effort to come to terms with the framework on its own terms. But now that I think of it, aren't we on the edge of rehashing the underlying debate that has defined linguistics since it was borned?

D. G. Myers said...

What’s odd, Buce, is how much gets rehashed when you become a dad.

Dave Lull said...

Your reference to Steven Pinker reminded me of Mark Halpern's essay "Why Linguists Are Not to be Trusted on Language Usage." Are you familiar with it?

D. G. Myers said...

Here’s another example of the rehashing. My wife argues that Spider-man, Batman, et al., are bad for the five-year-olds. If you can believe it, I actually found myself quoting Sidney to her in rebuttal: “What child is there that, coming to a play, and seeing Thebes written in great letters upon an old door, doth believe that it is Thebes?” Who’s the maroon now?

Dave, many thanks for the reference to Halpern’s essay. If it weren’t almost Shabbes (gevalt, less than half an hour) I’d chase it down and read it now. Saturday night for sure! (Do you like his fiction?)

Dave Lull said...

Mark Halpern ". . . frequently confused with Mark Helprin, novelist and sometime contributor to the Wall Street Journal . . . ." I haven't read any of Mark Helprin's fiction. though he's on my to-be-read list. Do you recommend anything in particular?

William Meloney said...

Each of my three children used the contraction "amn't". It should be noted that it is not used in the form 'I amn't cold.' Rather, it is used properly in 'I am drawing well amn't I?" I agree with Buce in his observation regarding "reasonable effort".

Thank you for your eloquent and insightful posts. Bein' a country boy here in the flat lands of western Kin-tuck I find 'em both entertainin' and just a wee bit challengin'. But, heckfire, tain't that what good writin' is all about? (*Smirk*)

D. G. Myers said...


Thanks again for the suggestion of Mark Helpern’s essay. (Helpern goes to amusing lengths on his home page to distinguish himself from the fiction writer Mark Helprin; you’d think that anyone with a name as common as my own would have taken at least some care to do the same.)

Helpern’s essay is amusing and persuasive. His best argument is that the linguist (or “descriptivist,” as he calls him throughout) and the grammar maven (or “prescriptivist”) are simply doing different things. Even if linguists’ claim to be practicing a science is granted, it does not follow that they have any standing in commenting on what are really “the constellation of literary-philosophical-social-moral issues that we are talking about when we discuss usage.”

Prescriptivists are best understood as literary critics (see my post on the relationship of literature to prescriptive grammar), and even if, to the horror of Northrop Frye, criticism is reduced to mere taste, there is no reason to prefer the taste of descriptive “scientists.”

When I correct my sons, then, I am acting as a literary critic--trying to get them to follow grammatical rules so automatically that their listeners don’t have to think about them.

About the fiction writer Mark Helprin. Much as with Hortense Calisher, I prefer the short stories, especially in Ellis Island and A Dove of the East.

Thanks again, Dave.

Dave Lull said...

Thanks for the tip about Mark Helperin and for the nice summary of Mark Halpern's essay.

Halpern, by the way, is the author of a book, Language and Human Nature, with a preface by his friend Jacques Barzun, who, as you no doubt know, has been criticized by Pinker, et al., for his prescriptivism. In his book, Halpern deals with one such case of Barzun's being criticized by Pinker, in which Pinker says that Barzun "earned an 'F'" because he called the possessive use of a noun an adjective. Halpern quotes from Barzun's response to Pinker's criticism.

D. G. Myers said...

Thank you for the tip, Dave. I am going to order Language and Human Nature today. Every book that Jacques Barzun ever wrote a preface to should be distributed and read as widely as possible.

Did I mention that Barzun wrote the preface to The Elephants Teach, or as my two-year-old son Isaac would say it, The Ephalents Teach?

Dave Lull said...

I don't remember your mentioning his preface, but I noticed it, and read it, when I was looking around your website. Yours sounds like another book for my to-be-read list.

Dave Lull said...

The first part of a two-part essay by Mark Halpern on "Prescriptivism and Descriptivism: What Are They at Root?" is in the May 2009 issue of The Vocabula Review (scroll down to "The Critical Reader" column).

Dave Lull said...

The second part of a two-part essay by Mark Halpern on "Prescriptivism and Descriptivism: A Descriptivist in Action" is in the June 2009 issue of The Vocabula Review (scroll down to "The Critical Reader" column).