Language Wars

One of the best books I ever read about language is Deborah Cameron’s Verbal Hygiene, which was published way back in 1995. It’s a wonderful look at the way people try to regulate language to make it functionally, aesthetically and morally “better” and how insanely outraged and angry they get about it.

There are people who are completely wedded to the Latin-ification of English grammar that began in the 1700s, thus they are wedded to “he” as the universal pronoun, believe that infinitives must not be split, and are deeply in love with the subjunctive mood, which is on its way out in English.1

There are those who are appalled by changes in the spelling and meaning of words. They’re outraged that “alright” is becoming as common a spelling as “all right.”2 They mourn the loss of the distinct meaning of the word “disinterest” etc etc.

There are those still wedded to what their English/MFA teacher taught them in primary school/university. Never use passive voice! Never end or begin a sentence with a conjunction! Avoid adverbs! Use adjectives sparingly!

A large chunk of my university training was in linguistics. I was trained in descriptivist traditions. That is, I was learning how to describe language use not how to police it. We never discussed wrong usage ever. That concept just didn’t exist. I studied how various different groups used language. We looked at language acquisition in small children as well as those learning English for the first time as adults. We looked at the way language changes. How what was once non-standard becomes standard and vice versa. Things like that.

I learned to listen to what people really said and to think about how and why. This is reflected in the novels I write. I use “alright” in dialogue because that’s what I hear many people saying, not “all right.” Particularly younger speakers, which is who most of my characters are. Many of my characters split infinitives, don’t use subjunctive, don’t say “whom” and thus commit what some consider crimes against language. Yes, I have gotten letters to that effect.

It is fascinating how intensely invested people are in language use. Especially writers. Whenever I discuss this with writer friends we don’t get very far because many of them are wedded to one or more of the uses I observe disappearing. Don’t defend the “alright” spelling in front of John Scalzi, for instance. I get that passion. I’m sad about “disinterest” losing its specific meaning too. But not that sad. There are other ways to say the same thing, which don’t confuse as many people. Sadly, they’re usually longer and less elegant.

I’m as invested as they are in my understanding of how language works and how it is deployed, which is why I get into so many heated discussions with my writer friends and protracted battles with editors, coypeditors and proofreaders, who are almost all prescriptivist. Like Geoffrey Pullum, I think The Elements of Style by Strunk & White is an amusing but insane set of self-contradicting rules: if you try to match rule with examples your head will explode. But I know people who find Strunk & White useful and have learned to write clearly from it.

English is a contradictory sprawling mess. Any attempt to map it out with a set of rules is doomed to self-contradiction and insanity. Lynne Truss’ Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation is as bad as Strunk & White. But has also been useful to many floundering in the mess that is English. Even attempts to merely describe the language are doomed. It’s too big, too unwieldy and growing too fast.

That’s part of why the English language makes me so happy.3 I can’t spell it very well, according to many I abuse its grammar rules, but English lets me break it open, pull out new words, mash up old ones. I get to play with how it looks and sounds and feels.

Like those who stand tall to defend English from the likes of me, I love it.

Just, you know, my love is more fun. πŸ™‚4

  1. Though I will confess that I am using subjunctive a lot in my 1930s novel, whose omni narrator is on the pompous side. []
  2. (For the record, I think “alright” and “all right” are often used as two different words and deploy them thus in my books, giving my copyeditors major headaches. []
  3. Not that I have many points of comparison given that I’ve never been completely fluent in any other language. I had a decent grasp of Kriol when I was very little but that’s long gone. I learned some Bahasa Indonesia in high school and first year uni. Also mostly gone. And then learned Spanish while living there for five months many years ago. My Spanish is also disappearing from lack of use. []
  4. That smiley isn’t going to save me from the haters, is it? []


  1. Phiala on #

    See? Procrastination.

    I love language, and languages. Eloquent and evocative description gives me the shivers. Finding the perfect word with the precise connotations is delightful, and I love reading authors where it shows that they thought about language, and thought hard. Contrast that to authors who obviously just pulled out a thesaurus so they could appear smarter, and have no grasp of connotation, rhythm or melody.

    The important part of grammar, to me, is encouraging readability. Some parts are optional, and can be used or not as it makes the author’s meaning more apparent. Other parts are mistakes, and frequently jar me out of happy-reader mode and into editor mode. Anything that interferes with Story is to be shunned. The best way I know of to identify a really good writer is by the use of grammar and word choice to serve the story- following or ignoring “rules” as needed to serve the flow of the tale. You do have to know the rules to be able to break them appropriately.

    Dialog can and should be looser, according to the character speaking or thinking or writing. But even there extreme deviations from the norm make it hard to follow, and distract from Story.

    The best way to learn this is to read a lot, and think critically about what works and what doesn’t. Then write a lot, and again think critically.

    Not that I’m good at it, but I am critical. πŸ™‚

  2. scott on #

    Basically, Strunk and White and its ilk are just like (other) holy texts: they may be full of contradictions and bizarre imperatives, but many people find them useful and comforting to cling to in a fundamentally chaotic universe. Note that a lot of prescriptivist arguments line up with those of (other) fundamentalists. “If we don’t have rules from heaven, then we’ll wind up with cats and dogs marrying each other!”*

    *I am paraphrasing Ghostbusters, of course. And yes, I know it’s “living together.”

  3. Dave H on #

    Amen. English isn’t a dead language like Latin – it is alive and changing and flexible.

    The one thing that will get me to stop reading a book or watching a TV show is a writer who can’t write dialogue that sounds like people talking.

  4. Ali on #

    Justine, have you read the Cloud Atlas? I haven’t got round to it yet, but apparently a part of it is set in the future and written in a kind of speculative future version of the English language. I thought that sounded really cool and this blog post just made me think of it.

  5. Ellen on #

    This is why I majored in Linguistics, and not English. Huzzah for descriptivism!

  6. kathleen duey on #

    Oh, thanks for this. Well said. Too true.

    And this little bit to add: Words are often thought of as a writer’s tools. But really, they are our raw material. We use them like paint, tones/notes/scales/rhythms, clay, granite, thread/yarn/raffia, metals,etc….to create…something.

    Is there a single proper way to use paint? To sculpt granite? To play a tune? To weave? To make jewelry? The other arts get a much longer leash,and reward their leash-breakers far more often. Not sure why, but am increasingly annoyed by it.

  7. Maggie Stiefvater on #

    I dunno. I have mixed feelings on this. On the one hand, I was a history major and so I can’t forget that languages change and grow and shrink and do all kinds of other interesting things to keep them relevant. To pretend otherwise is just . . . well, it’s silly. Rulebooks can tell us what the language is supposed to do, but it will pretty much do whatever it wants to in the background, what with LOLing and internet and etc.

    That said, though, I think the fears that language will degrade are legit. Yes, the English language is huge and unwieldy, but it’s also brilliant and nuanced, with three words for every single possible thing you might want to say. And there’s a real danger of losing these words and nuances for the wrong reasons — because a huge portion of our population is speaking LOLspeak and communicating in under 140 characters (says someone who does do both). That’s not evolving — it’s devolving, because it’s a sub-set of English intended for a specific purpose which is now being used everywhere. Yeah, I am all for breaking the rules — if you know them first.

  8. veejane on #

    On the one hand, I endorse and encourage realistic and situation-appropriate use of dialect. On the other hand, I come from the fanfic world, where hilariously wrong — really wrong, ew-I-hope-that’s-not-what-you-meant wrong — expressions are proof that sometimes what sounds good in your head doesn’t translate euphoniously or intelligently onto the page/screen.

    At any rate, lathes are still for wood-working, and not a good synonym for licking. Even when I know what word you meant to use, your use of the wrong one can be detrimental to my continuation in the story (without hysterical laughter).

    I don’t tut others for their tragic lack of “whom” (see?), although depending on the background and social class of your narrator, my grandparents would tend to indicate that “whom” would be absolutely required for a 1930s-appropriate dialect. No pomposity about it!

  9. Justine on #

    Veejane: Your “depending on the background and social class” is the crux of the matter. Lots of English speakers in the NYC of the 1930s did not use “whom.” I’ve been immersed in letters and journals and newspapers and magazines and novels of that period for well over a year now and I’m seeing as great a variety of Englishes as I see in the city now.

  10. Lori S. on #

    I am a descriptivist, too. Because I am very good with spelling and punctuation (and fluent in more than one style — wait, you mean that there’s more than one way to do these things?! Shhh…), many of my friends try to get me to join them in their outrage at misplaced apostrophes in signs and so on, and they don’t quite get that I just don’t care. Yes, I notice, no, it doesn’t bother me much as long as the meaning is clear. If the signmaker wants to pay me to standardize their usage, that’s a deal we can work out, but otherwise, I can let it go.

  11. scott on #

    To everyone who says, “You have to know the rules to break them,” I would suggest that there’s no the rules.

    It would obviously be absurd to insist that speakers of Jamaican English have to know the rules of “standard” US usage to write in their own dialect. So why assert that folks writing in other English vernaculars need to know standard editorial rules in order to “break” them? The answer is, they don’t, because they’re not actually breaking anything.

    It’s always helpful to know stuff, of course. And being able to run rings around grammar snobs is fun (and helpful at the copyediting stage). But to suggest that you have to know a dominant rule set in order to write inside another rule set reminds me of those people who say, “Picasso’s abstracts are only good because he could draw realistically if he wanted.” Obviously, painting realistically is a great thing to be able to do, and is an ability that affects everything else you paint, but it is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition to painting well in an abstract mode.

    So I would change, “You have to know the rules to break them” to something much less elegant, like, “Knowing any rule set increases your proficiency with other rule sets, and knowing standardized rule sets is particularly useful when dealing with representatives of the dominant culture, especially the asshats.”

  12. Justine on #

    Lori & Scott: Exactly so. It astonishes me how difficult it is to get otherwise intelligent people to understand that there is no one set of grammar rules. And thus no The Rules that everyone can learn in order to then be permitted to break them.

  13. bookwormchris on #

    I’m terrible with the who and whom usage. Perhaps that is why I don’t use whom if I can avoid it. Nobody to blame but myself since I look it up every few months and then promptly forget about it. For the longest time I had issues with they’re/their/there until I just sat down one day and beat them into my head. Recently I have found amusement in splitting up words that we often compound. Examples include sometime, everyday, something, afternoon, etc. There are many, and I always find it interesting to discern the subtle and not so subtle differences a single space can make.

    So. I’m lazy with grammar and my spelling is atrocious. Well, often it is so. Lately I have had days where my hands type entirely different words than the ones I commanded them to type.

  14. Nicholas Waller on #

    @ Dave H writer who can’t write dialogue that sounds like people talking – “sounds like” is key here, because a book or TV show full of people only talking the way people really talk – full of umms and ers and gaps and interruptions and half-thought-through half-sentences tailing away – would be extremely irritating.

    @ Ali – have you read Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker? That’s set in a post-apocalyptic Kent in an interesting future phonetic language that you soon get the hang of*. And Iain Banks’s Feersum Endjinn is partly told in strange spellings.

    *Ending sentences with a preposition is something I am happy to do but some prescriptivists proscribe.

  15. Lizabelle on #

    As a language geek, I loved this post. I studied Latin at school (as well as German and French, but it was the Latin that left a real impression on me), and then modern Germanic languages at university. It took a lot of years of language geekery for me to get over my anal-retentiveness regarding spelling and grammar.

    English is a wonderfully flexible language, and that’s why I love it. I’ll happily split infinitives where necessary, and end sentences on a preposition if I think it’s appropriate. English is at least 50% a Germanic language, and there’s no need for it to conform to Latin rules unless you want it to.

  16. Monica on #

    Oh nooO! don’t loose your spanish (read it, hear some Shakira or Timbiriche, watch a film) πŸ˜€

  17. vian on #

    I teach in a writing course, and while in my use and loyalties I’m a descriptivist, I think there is a place for teaching and using traditional grammar. Of course there’s no One True Way, just as there’s no One True Text, but it’s a neat trick to know, for example, that if you want someone to sound stuffy and bureaucratic, you put all their dialogue in Passive Voice.

    The people I teach were not taught any grammar, except if they learned a language other than English, so it’s like giving them a bigger box of crayons once they realise they can use Rules to increase the emotional impact on their readers.

    There’s other ways of teaching grammar, too. Don’t say “avoid adverbs” when what you really mean is “say ‘dashed’, ‘bolted’, ‘flew’, ‘scurried’ or ‘hurtled’ rather than ‘ran fast’.” Gorgeous strong verbs, English has. Love them. Use them. It’s the “thou shalt not” attitude of proscriptivists which gets on my nerves, not the proscription itself.

  18. Cameron on #

    Largely I agree, but as a proud Australian I will stand at the battelments musket in hand defending the ‘u’ in colour!

  19. rockinlibrarian on #

    Well, I’m — descriptivist, was that the term you used?– too, but I do have an extraneous comma pet peeve like Lynne Truss. It’s because when I see a comma, I pause, and people who misuse commas are usually doing it not because they don’t know the rules, exactly, but because they THINK the rules tell them to put a comma places where commas don’t need to be. You get sentences like, “The banana, was yellow, and, had brown spots.” So that’s a grammar peeve of mine that has more to do with people TRYING to follow the rules but getting them wrong, whereas if they just used common sense they’d probably be following the rules properly. Of course, I probably have quite a few run on sentences in this comment, and places where people who are sticklers for comma rules and actually KNOW them know that I SHOULD have used a comma. But I prefer to go by pauses.

    Apostrophe misuse I think is a case of people thinking they’re following the rules but getting them wrong, too (why else would you include a typed character if you didn’t think you needed it? Besides typos), but they’re not quite so jarring to the flow of reading as extraneous commas.

  20. Nicola on #

    Hmm, but surely the point of standard grammar with consistent rules is so that everyone (with knowledge of a particular language) can read a certain piece of text and understand what it says and means. Grammar elucidates meaning in writing. Without it used correctly the meaning of a piece of writing can be ambiguous and wide open to misinterpretation.

    Also, good dialogue in books and on TV very often bears little resemblance to the way people talk to each other in real life. Real conversation is supplemented by tone of voice, facial expressions, hand gestures and other body language, not to mention false starts, verbal tics, grammatical mistakes and so on.

  21. Justine on #

    Nicola: There is no one standard English grammar with consistent rules. If you want that then may I suggest you stick to Esperanto.

  22. Diana Peterfreund on #

    “Alright” makes my teeth hurt. It makes my ears bleed. I NEVER hear anyone say it, and I picture words. “A’ight” I’ll give you, and gladly, since I hear it often, and even “awright.” If “awright” became a word in descriptivist fashion, I’d be completely on board. But I’ve never heard anyone say “alright.” They say “all right.”

    I’m fine with descriptivism, as long as the words don’t hurt. “Impactful” hurts. “Truthiness” and “Google” are interesting.

  23. Jon on #

    After I had the viva for my doctoral thesis, I spent a fun afternoon Tippexing (there’s a neologism for you) out the terminal ‘e’ on the word ‘quote’ and adding the suffix ‘-ation’ in pen to every instance in the written version where I had used ‘quote’ as a noun rather than as a verb. My examiners insisted on several other grammatical corrections too, but this is the one I remember, because I had to repeat it dozens of times, while holding the pages apart until the Tippex had dried. Thus the ‘official’ version in the university library has blobs of Tippex distributed irregularly throughout (for some reason resubmitting a corrected version was not permitted). Ever since this traumatic experience, I have a sort of mental tic whereby I automatically say ‘quotation’ to myself whenever anybody uses ‘quote’ as a noun. But it is just a private tic. For all intents and purposes, the battle has been lost, and ‘quotation’ is now obsolete. There is a small loss of meaning involved here – i.e. the ability to discriminate between the noun and the verb – but the rest of the world has obviously moved on. I only wish someone had told my examiners this ten years ago.

  24. Lauren McLaughlin on #

    Whether a writer’s particular linguistic flair succeeds or fails has nothing to do with how “correct” it is. Language is like jazz and the important thing is that the writer has mastery of it, whatever style of jazz she’s writing. If it’s sloppy, lazy, inconsistent, and without charm, no amount of grammatical correction will make it sing.

  25. Justine on #

    Lauren: What you said!

    Others in comments and in email to me: No where in the post above did I say people must eschew learning the various different grammars of English.

    (See also Scott’s comment above.)

    Au contraire, especially for writers, the more you know about languages, including the many different approaches to describing their grammars, the more tools and resources you have at your fingertips. That’s one of the many reasons I spent many years studying linguistics.

    The more you know about what you do the more versatile your writing becomes.

    However, I also know some writers who aren’t entirely clear on what a “gerund” is or “subjunctive” who have no idea about the debates over what the infinitive in English actually is. In short who know very little about formal descriptions of the language they make a living writing and yet are perfectly good writers . . .

  26. Clix on #

    As someone who gets paid (in part) to teach ‘the rules,’ I must point out that those of us who use that phrase aren’t referring to a single ordered list. Or even one that’s just got bullets. (Well, I’m not, anyway.)

    I tend to think of The Rules as more of a wordle cloud – different sizes, different colors (yet complementary if possible), and often at right angles to each other but not quite colliding. It looks haphazard and disorganized, but there’s somehow a harmony to it.

  27. Nicola on #

    I understand that English is a language that changes and grows and that this is why it’s become the lingua franca (so to speak), but it still saddens me that so many of the changes happen simply because people get stuff wrong so much it seems easier to make the wrong way the right way – if that makes sense! That seems more of an indictment of the education systems in English-speaking countries than a win for English. For example, I’ve noticed in a lot of American TV lately people saying, ‘I could care less,’ when they clearly mean, ‘I couldn’t care less.’ This is happening so much that the latter phrase will probably replace the former despite the fact that it actually says the exact opposite of what the speaker means. How can this be right?

  28. Kat on #

    This brings me back to my linguistics classes. I remember I was taught many of the rules you’ve mentioned in primary school, and was told if I didn’t follow them I wasn’t writing proper English (whatever that meant). Then in high school and a couple of good English teachers later, I concluded that at least for me, language is first and foremost a tool of communication. Its structure is to facilitate understanding and comprehension. Grammar however sometimes goes beyond that to dictate a ‘style’ of writing, which I really disklike. English is such a colourful and adaptive language (look at Shakespeare), I think it would be a shame to shackle it down with strict grammar. Of course I don’t mean it should become a incoherent mess, but I definately won’t turn my noses up to new words or new structures.

Comments are closed.