Thursday, March 19, 2015

Grammatically Said ≠ Worthily Said, or Well Said (11 Aug. 2014)

           One day early in my career as an English teacher, a student at a tutorial on his essay said to me, "You know, for a guy so far Left in politics, you're a real conservative when it comes to grammar." I asserted in mostly mock indignation, "We are talking here, Sir, of a matter of style and rhetoric, and in cases of style and rhetoric, Sir, I am not a conservative; in such matters, I, Sir, am a reactionary!"

            I think he had ended not only a sentence but his opening paragraph with a preposition, and my complaint wasn't about grammar — a preposition is a perfectly grammatical thing to end a sentence with — but the stylistic point that he'd wasted a strongly-stressed climax position on a not-particularly-exciting function-word.

            Like most college-level English teachers, I had some training in linguistics and scientific grammar and had been perhaps especially fortunate to not have had writing rules shoved down my throat K-12, so I started teaching writing blissfully unaware that there was, e.g., some absolute prohibition against splitting infinitives (e.g., as I split "to have" above). I also didn't know that writers were forbidden to use "I" and got sincerely confused when my students wrote "It could be said that" when the normal construction is "I think."

            I ended up doing a little spiel on "It could be said that 'The moon is made of green cheese' — obviously, since I just said it." I noted that "I think" is pretty much an unarguable assertion — it'd be stupidly arrogant to tell you that you didn't think something — but "I think" is a handy locution and fine to use to hedge a bit (now and then) or, if stated emphatically, to give your take on some issue.

            My students taught me that "schoolmarm grammar" was alive and doing ill in 20th-century high schools, often enforced by instructors of both sexes who were younger, cooler, hipper, and otherwise less schoolmarmish than I. So I added a section to my initial class handout listing "Writing Superstitions (Corrected)" and once got a small group of my colleagues to take out an ad in the school newspaper offering cash prizes to anyone who could find a current academic style sheet that supported such rules.

            No one collected, although Stanley Milgram once indicated that an industrious researcher could have dug up an old Psych style manual that forbade "I" and "we" — and that was why his initial report on his once-famous experiments on obedience had many passive-voice/deleted agent locutions — but more on that below.

            For now I will just pronounce the formula that I am not now nor (to the best of my knowledge) ever been a grammar Nazi, if, for no other reason, I was and remain too much of an intellectual snob to show off such ignorance.



            But — but however much I'm willing to mess around with odd paragraphing and sentence fragments and starting even paragraphs with conjunctions, I do get persnickety about the ethics and politics and lesser but still important implications of writing: rhetoric is the art of ethical persuasion, and far from everything grammatically said or written is worthily said or written. Or, more commonly, far from everything grammatical is sensible and well-advised.

            So this much in favor of one kind of language conservatism.

            Most basically and least grandly, language needs schoolmarms and grammar Nazis for a kind of inertia that new locutions have to overcome. It also needs satirists, who can be even more reactionary than the schoolmarms. Words like "mob" and "debunk" started out as neologisms, and they stuck with the language despite the purists because they are useful. Slang from the 1920's like "23 skidoo" and "the cat's pajamas" — whatever the hell those meant — are no longer with us and unmourned. Ditto for "hep" and, I suspect, its hardier ancestor and descendent "hip," and numerable-but-why-bother expressions that entered the gantlet of pedantry and satire, had a run, and then got cut down and buried.

            A bit more important — if still vocabulary, not yet real grammar — there was merit when my third grade, or so, teacher rhetorically asked a classmate who'd asserted love for ice cream, "Would you die defending ice cream?" As the Usual Gang of (Wise) Idiots at MAD Magazine pointed out, "'Love' is overrated," "'Like' is underrated," in a couple of senses. Using "love" when "like" is quite sufficient devalues the meaning of "love" and reinforces the tendency in modern American communication TO FREAKING OVER-HYPE AND OVERSTATE EVERYTHING!!! (And I'll throw in for younger readers: The people who communicate with you only on Facebook are barely your acquaintances, not your friends, not unless you can call them up and have them take you to the airport or emergency room.)

            Similarly with some distinctions both pedantic and significant.

            It sounds weird to my ear when people say that something "begs the question" when they mean "invites" or "raises the question." To me, "begging the question" is a logical fallacy I never really understood, and I don't know why normal people would use the expression. Still, the new usage is no big deal, and if "that begs the question" comes to mean "raises the question" and removes old-style "begging the question" from colloquial conversation, that's fine with me.

            It's a significant issue, though, if "disinterested" comes to mean just "uninterested" and eliminates "disinterested" as an quick way to say "not influenced by considerations of personal advantage." We need the concept of "disinterest" if we're to talk easily about, say, journalism: journalists can't and shouldn't be objective in dealing with human stories — viewing human beings as objects to be observed is a step on the road to horrors — but journalists can try to be fair and accurate and, well, disinterested. And demanding objectivity is another instance of FREAKING OVER-STATING EVERYTHING: if Fox News really were fair and balanced that would be quite sufficient; they needn't try for godlike, or demonic, distance and detachment.

            Similarly, if with fewer dangers, is forgetting the flippant reminder, "Media [and data as well] are a plural noun." It's not ungrammatical to lump together all the various media into one vast singular "The Media"; it is, however, misleading and unfair. There is no vast singular Media out there, and Fox News isn't The Daily Show or The Nation or The Atlantic or PBS or NPR or graffiti. And if you have ever dealt seriously with data, you know that they are often messy and sometimes contradictory.

            The examples about, though, are just words: vocabulary, not grammar — a general principle John McWhorter stresses in his provocative Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English. McWhorter raises a grammatical example I want to look at: using "they" as a gender-neutral, 3rd-person singular pronoun, as in "Each student should bring their book." This is my example and a somewhat loaded one; McWhorter gives examples from literary English that will sound unexceptional to almost any speaker of English. I give this one because I served on a committee of two assigned to make rule-writing by Miami University's Student Affairs Council more gender inclusive, starting with rules that had "The student … he (his)." On this issue, we declined to use "The student … they/their" or "he and she" or "his and her" or "s/he" or any such locution on the grounds that gender shouldn't be an issue at all since our rules shouldn't be talking about "The student" to start with. "The Student" is an abstraction, a type, and The Student never shows up in nature. Even with the homogeneous undergraduate student body of Miami U at Oxford — dismissed by Playboy, MUO folklore saith, as "male models and cheerleaders with straight teeth" — the people who showed up in class and on campus were individual students.

            Thinking in categories is inevitable if we're to think at all, and careful typological analysis can be useful; it's done in two of my favorite books: Eric Hoffer's The True Believer (obviously dealing with a type), and Konrad Lorenz's On Aggression, which deals with ideal models of behavior abstracted from nature and specifically identified as abstractions. Still, most of us are rarely very analytical and many of us get sloppy in our thinking and speech and writing; types easily slip into stereotypes, and stereotypical thinking is usually not useful and often much worse.

            (Imagine a transition here.)

            I'll end by returning to Stanley Milgram and "I" and "we" and the passive voice; for, verily, as much as any schoolmarm grammarian bashed knuckles for using "I," my MS-Word Grammar Check comes down with less violence but equal dogmatism on the passive voice. And here I'll somewhat go along with Word Grammar Check, however often I disobey its commands.

            Milgram should have avoided the passive voice in his initial article on "Behavioral Study of Obedience" (1963), as he was to come to avoid it in his brilliant book-length study Obedience to Authority (1974). The passive voice is grammatical in English by definition: there are rules in actual English grammar — the grammar we use to generate sentences — that transform active voice statements into the passive. Passive-voice sentences, however, are longer and come across as weaker than active-voice, so there are stylistic reasons to prefer the active voice, but the issue I want to look at is ethical.

            Somewhere in, I think, her monumental The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), Hannah Arendt describes bureaucratic tyranny as government "in the passive voice, deleted agent." In modern tyrannies, people talk as if things just happen; "an edict comes down." During US military adventures in Vietnam, we were told — "The village was destroyed." The passive voice, deleted agent denies agency, denies responsibility.

            Milgram's experiments very much had to do with destructive obedience and with denial of responsibility. The ultimate occasion of his study was the obedience of German soldiers and others during World War II — many others — in slaughtering men, women, and children upon command.
            Milgram's experiments themselves raised ethical questions about deceiving subjects and pushing them to do, as far as they knew, awful things to a helpless man: inflict (they thought) increasingly high-voltage shocks, shocks that, if actually inflicted, could have killed the man.

            Milgram's presentation of these experiments may not be the last place in the world for the passive voice, deleted agent, but they are in that ballpark. And when I asked Milgram — in very bad taste on my part, at a party — why he'd used such locutions, the answer was that "That was how it was done."

            That was how it was done back in 1963, in a journal in psychology, whose editors, one would think, would have some command of the commonsense psychology that recognizes that human beings with human psyches do stuff. By 1974, the rules had relaxed enough that Milgram could write a book using "I" and "we" — and by the time MS-Word developed its spelling and grammar checker, the passive voice was to be eschewed.
                   (Although the Checker let me get away with "eschewed" where "avoided" would do the job — and still retain the little grammatical joke.)

            What the grammar Nazis are often complaining about is people not using the prestige form of the language and more often complaining about other people's not using the rules they worked hard to learn to obey. That's okay, so long as the grammar police aren't teaching English or copy-editing my writing or making children feel bad about their use of language. The word cops are, however, often misdirecting their efforts.

            There are still literal Nazis out there and other fanatics to be opposed, and if one's medium of opposition is language, they (sic) should be writing letters for Amnesty International and attacking instances of serious mischief in communication: the sort of significant offenses George Orwell attacked in an essay I'll recommend once again, "Politics and the English Language" (1946).

            And every now and then we language conservatives can attack a silly new expression or two and see if we can laugh it into oblivion. 

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