Monday, May 18, 2009

What do we do in the face of all the bashing that English is getting lately?

What do we do in the face of all the bashing that English as we know it has been getting lately? Do these relentless assaults on its established usage bode well or ill for English as a global language?

A few weeks ago, we saw how Prof. Geoffrey K. Pullum, head of linguistics and English language at the University of Edinburgh, cruelly debunked Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of its publication. In an article entitled “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice” in the April 17, 2009 issue of The Chronicle Review, Prof. Pullum said the now iconic book “does not deserve the enormous esteem in which it is held by American college graduates. Its advice ranges from limp platitudes to inconsistent nonsense. Its enormous influence has not improved American students’ grasp of English grammar; it has significantly degraded it.”

The following week, four more English usage luminaries joined Prof. Pullum in taking potshots at Strunk and White. This was in a forum run by The New York Times last April 24 to mark the book’s 50th year. The forum contributors, apart from Prof. Pullum, were Patricia T. O’Conner, author of the bestselling grammar book Woe is I; Stephen Dodson, an editor and blogger at; Ben Yagoda, author of The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing and English professor at the University of Delaware; and Mignon Fogarty, creator of the “Grammar Girl” podcast and author of Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.

The consensus among the forum panelists seemed to be that the grammar advice in The Elements of Style, although useful at first encounter, is too simplistic and sometimes too contradictory to be truly helpful to serious learners of English. As Patricia O’Conner tartly remarked in her forum piece, “Rereading Strunk and White on its 50th birthday is like meeting an old lover and realizing how much you’ve outgrown him. Things have changed, little book, and you have not, or not enough…Oh, the first 14 pages are still the gospel truth…but much of the grammar and usage advice in the rest of the book is baloney.”

Now, Patricia O’Conner is on the English-grammar warpath again with the publication of Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language, a book she has co-written with her husband Stewart Kellerman, former editor at The New York Times and foreign correspondent for UPI in Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. In their book, the wife-and-husband team punctures what they consider as myths and misconceptions about English usage that people have been taught over the years, then postulates that some of the generally accepted “rules” of English grammar are not and never were rules in the first place.

We all know that like culture and religious belief, language is merely a system of arbitrary signs, symbols, sounds, and mutual understandings among a particular group of people about the world around them. Language is not meant to be—and was never meant to be—totally precise, formulaic, and mathematical like an algebraic or differential equation. It is therefore not surprising that English, like any other language, should consist of a hodgepodge of generally accepted, often debated, and sometimes derided rules of grammar and usage. Indeed, the wonder of it all is that despite all of its imperfections and despite its volatility and variability over the centuries, English has become one of the world’s most widely used and best understood languages.

So why deprive English of many of the generally accepted moorings—no matter how feeble and how irritatingly arbitrary or wrongheaded at times—that after all keep it thoroughly functional as a language? Shouldn’t we invest our efforts instead in encouraging and strengthening the fidelity of users and learners of English to these rules? There aren’t so many of those rules in the first place and I’m afraid that jettisoning even just a few of them for the sake of linguistic correctness or plain fun might just do more damage than good to English.

Read Professor Geoffrey K. Pullum’s Critique of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style

Read the forum of The New York Times marking the 50th anniversary of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style

Read an excerpt from Origins of the Specious (Chapter 1)

No comments:

Post a Comment