Language Pedantry
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Language Pedantry

Readers are aware, no doubt, of the Brotherhood of Language Pedantry?  Their mission is to keep the English language immaculate. 

Harlish Goop is well aware of the danger. He's a recovering language dogmatist from way back.

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A Word in Your Pink Shell-like — Harlish Goop


Newspaper readers will have noticed regular language columns and occasional letters to the editor bewailing the state of modern English usage. Their writers are part of a brotherhood whose mission is to keep the language immaculate.

Brotherhood? Yes, they're male, as Henry Fowler himself appreciated as far back as 1926 (Modern English Usage):

Men, especially, are as much possessed by the didactic impulse as women by the maternal instinct.

Of course, with such a distinguished forbear, it's no wonder that these pedagogical fellows will, with little provocation, invoke their hero passionately. You've seen it — the Fowler-would-turn-in-his-grave lament. And in Fowler's prolonged and unavoidable absence, they cry, someone with authority had better step in and stop the rot, preferably the government.

But, unlike the Germans briefly under Hitler and the French in perpetuity since 1635, neither the Americans nor the English (let alone the Australians) have ever been able to bring themselves to establish government-funded language protection institutes.

By way of compensation, we are favoured with a steady stream of handbooks on all that is incorrect and inadmissible with the use of this word or that syntax, or this pronunciation or that spelling. And while we await the next such publication we can be sure that our ever vigilant band of language custodians are there ready with their pens and email to besiege newspaper editors with details of the latest object of their loathing.

I should know. I'm a recovering language dogmatist from way back. They say that at birth I clapped my hands on hearing a doctor say, "It's a ‘diftheria’ epidemic, nurse, not 'diptheria'."

In Primary School I once got caught at recess expounding to a bored group of classmates the precise difference between metonymy and synecdoche, with copious examples drawn from 19th century English poets. Then, in High School after a year of Latin and French I added German to my obsessions. That poor German teacher. In my first week I drove him mad with continual questions on the exceptions to the gender rules for common nouns. He tore his hair out with frustration, went bald and then went bush, but not before finding time to write in a term report "Tends to overemphasise the trivial".

That's all in the past, though. For the last 25 years I've been a member of Pedants Anonymous. “Just take it one datum at a time,” they taught me, and my doctor says it’s working. Except that once in a while I feel this urge . . .

Back to my cravings in a moment. First we’d better look at the history of English language commentary, because one’s internal struggle has reassuring precedents.

In the 16th and 17th centuries English was treated descriptively by grammarians and dictionary makers. But in the 18th century (thank you, S. Johnson and Company), what contemporary linguists call prescriptivism became the order of the day, and this attitude lasted until the early 20th century. Needless to say, the prescriptive approach imposes rules not only on what is to be prescribed, but also what is proscribed.

By the second half of the 20th century descriptivism had regained ascendancy, under the influence of modern linguistics. So these days the job for grammarians and dictionary makers is to record the facts of language diversity, and not to preach or legislate.

Opposition to the descriptive approach persists however, as we have seen. Indeed, when the going gets rough the battle is compared in ideological terms to a political conflict, with the armies of elitism and conservatism on the one side ranged against the forces of radicalism and liberalism on the other.

Mind you, I’d have thought that the difference is psychological rather than political, more a clash of temperaments (which politics itself may be anyway, unconsciously). But that’s another story.

History lessons aside, doctor, how can I cope with my relapses into language usage faultfinding?

Wait on. Should I reluctantly accept some annoyances, perhaps, so as to concentrate my strength on challenging real abominations?

What’s that, doctor? I’m on the right track, now, am I? You reckon I should be trying to preserve what Fowler called a “pedantry scale”?

Well, if there are degrees of language misuse, how to rank them?

Start with a category list? O.K.

There are words mispronounced, e.g. “controversy”, “aitch”.

There are plurals used in the singular (“criteria”, “media”).

There are invented words, too, like “irregardless”.

There are words misspelt, as in many signs graced with a spurious apostrophe (“Fresh Banana’s”, “Latest Video’s”).

Then there are grammatical indiscretions, “between you and I” or “different than”, for example.

Not forgetting meanings currently attached to words like “pristine”, “protagonist” or “quantum” that are offensive to some of us.

Yes, infringements all of them, but now I’m starting to realise that there are far more disagreeable things being done to the language. After all, English words have been shifting in meaning for over a thousand years, often in the direction of literal to figurative. Think of the history of what “oblivious” once meant, for example, or “toilet”, “potpourri” or “sanguine”.

To say nothing of grammar, spelling and pronunciation changes.

The more critical offences I’m referring to here occur in the unthinking and lazy confusion of two similar words, each with its own valuable set of meanings; in short, malapropisms.

Examples abound on radio and TV, places where one of the tasks is to communicate, too. And not just from sporting commentators either, who frequently have to talk off the cuff, and fast, (though they needn’t try to sound so highbrow at the same time). This sort of thing:

deprecate versus depreciate
disinterested versus uninterested
flaunt versus flout
home versus hone
imply versus infer
militate versus mitigate
oversee versus oversight
supine versus prostrate versus prostate.
To quote Fowler,

What is required is the habit of paying all words the compliment of respecting their peculiarities,

and nothing could be more peculiar to any pair of words than their separate meanings, surely.

But is there really a “serviceable distinction” (Fowler again) to be found among the various types of errors, or am I just imagining it?

I’d be very interested in your views. Do you agree for instance that malapropisms like “hone in on” for “home in on” are more to be shunned than, say, the use of “pristine” to mean “pure”?

All opinions to be expressed in the true Bikwil spirit, of course — restrained and minimally negative.

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