A common way to discuss what is correct or appropriate or not in English is by pointing out shortcomings in other people’s usage. This practice has a long tradition in language commentary and pedagogy, and while it can be helpful and enlightening, it’s not always constructive. Not only in the sense that people frequently misidentify errors, but also in that they may target the wrong people.
In a recent roundup of language in the news, this blog linked to a post on the topic by John E. McIntyre, esteemed night editor at the Baltimore Sun. McIntyre says that in his university editing class he seldom uses examples of errors from student newspapers, because it’s ‘like fishing with dynamite – too easy to be morally sound’. Criticising language use is a political act. If we say, ‘This is bad English’ or ‘X here should be Y’, then it matters who we use to illustrate our point. There is the option of making up examples, but existing ones can be more meaningful, showing readers how and where someone’s grammar or style went awry in real life.
For centuries grammarians have used examples from books and other printed material to analyse or deplore certain writing practices, often stating that their intent is not to shame but to educate. In their instructive handbook The Reader Over Your Shoulder (1943), Robert Graves and Alan Hodge selected passages from various eminent writers and catalogued their shortcomings, but stressed their assumption that the writers chosen, like the authors themselves, would be ‘glad to have their errors pointed out, so long as this is done justly and without malice’.
The trouble is, malice or petty triumphalism is often what motivates people to highlight errors. This is just as likely when the source is not a formal text. Edited copy is fair game: criticism goes with the professional territory. But the same high standards should not apply to casual contexts like everyday conversation. Twitter, for instance, abounds in ‘corrective’ accounts that systematically police informal language. Some are polite or entertaining, but many are not – and they may even be mistaken about what they purport to correct.
There are entire websites dedicated to making fun of mistakes (or imaginary mistakes) without making any distinction between text edited for formal publication and text handwritten on a noticeboard – maybe by someone who is not a native English speaker, or who has a linguistic impairment, or who received limited school education. Unless they’re particularly interesting examples of an aspect of language use, presented or analysed without self-righteous judgement, we should think twice before exploiting a social dynamic that privileges us.Email this Post
It’s not just errors, either. The same type of problem can exist when people choose examples to show to “prove” that something is acceptable, too. I’m always skeptical when someone cites a poet’s work as a usage example. In poetry, grammar and usage can be trumped by any number of things — rhythm, meter, rhyme, sound. So sometimes we see arguments like “Shakespeare did X, so X must be good usage.”
A (very) little research can then reveal, “Shakespeare did X because he needed an extra un-emphasized syllable to complete the iambic pentameter.”
The moral of the story: Whether you’re trying to prove something right or point out errors, avoid citing poetry, where grammar sits second fiddle to art.
That’s a good point, Andy. It’s a form of false equivalence to use poetry to back up grammatical claims. Citing Shakespeare can also mislead simply because grammatical and other linguistic norms change, and what was appropriate centuries ago isn’t necessarily so today. In arguing about the legitimacy of a usage in modern English, there’s nothing wrong with referring to Shakespeare alongside other works from difference contexts and times, but the argument oughtn’t to be based on his usage.
More on this from John E. McIntyre: “Being an English major does not license you to be a prig.”