Sunday, January 09, 2005

English Language Smackdown

William Deresiewicz writes a wonderful essay for the Sunday NY Times about English. In it he cites two newer books, The Stories of English by David Crystal and Do You Speak American? by Robert MacNeil and William Cran. The essay begins:

I came across the following sentence in a term paper recently. The student was about to describe how she had arrived at her conclusions. This is what she wrote: ''The following methodology was utilized.'' I see this kind of thing all the time. Not ''the following method was used''; not ever ''this is what I did.'' Like nearly all the students I've taught, this young woman has learned to believe that the English language does not have room for her. That it is a secret code known only to the initiated. That the language she speaks is uneducated, inferior and incorrect. Hence the corseted tone, the vocabulary that strains at sophistication, the way she absents herself from her own writing. This is a student who has been taught to worship the volcano god of Correct English.
Members of the Grammar Police will be sad to know that they are out of a job because, well, there is not such thing as Correct English. Yes, there is Standard English, used by government, the press, the academy and business, but even Standard English has a high degree of variation in it. The idea of Correct English began in the 18th century and has much to do with class. Correct English is not the same as Standard English. Correct English is prescriptivist while Standard English is descriptivist. But the Grammar Police have superiority issues and feel the need to cram Correct English down our throats. The Grammar Police drive me nuts. I have an M.A. in English Literature. I can diagram sentences (talk about the biggest waste of time ever). I can speak and write perfectly fine English. But I don't. Sometimes I'm lazy. But most of the time it's because I don't want to sound like someone with a stick up their ass. And I never, NEVER, correct anyone even if what was said is equivalent to fingernails on a chalkboard (my own internal grammar monitor can only tolerate so much). I think humiliating someone is rude and unnecessary. It might make you feel superior but everyone else thinks you're a putz and will very soon stop talking to you altogether. Besides, English is a living language and living languages evolve. That is one of the things I like best about English. We borrow words from other languages, we create new meanings for old words, and make up new words when what we have does not suffice. As Deresiewicz so aptly quotes Wittgenstein, "The limits of my language are the limits of my world." And I don't know about you, but I'm always ready to expand my world's horizons.