Sunday, December 16, 2007

Sauce for the Gander

Mike Clark, the N&R columnist on language, writes today about how "language sticklers" like him tend to drive friends and family nuts with their linguistic policing. Mike also drives me a bit nuts, because I believe that such policing has little to do with a love of language and much to do with a desire to control others.

Besides, the notions of "correctness" that get used in these exercises are quite arbitrary, and are often just a matter of imposing past conventions -- real or imagined -- on present speech. I find that policers of language impose their standards inconsistently, or, worse, are guilty of the same crimes that they accuse others of.*

(*No, it is not incorrect to end a sentence with a preposition, and if you don't like it, it's just something you have to put up with.)

In fact, Clark's column today is full of the kinds of little errors that he likes to find in others.

For example, he writes,

However, at home it seems to go differently.
Passing over the vague reference of "it," which doesn't refer clearly to anything in the preceding context, I'll ask why Clark doesn't know that "however" should be postpositive. According to Strunk's Elements of Style, "In the meaning nevertheless, ["however" is] not to come first in its sentence or clause ... When however comes first, it means in whatever way or to whatever extent."

Clark also writes,

Evidently, there was an infinitesimal catch in my voice. A teeny tone thing that gave me away.
In proper usage, "infinitesimal" means "an infinitely small amount, too small to be measured or reckoned." How could something so small be evident? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Clark's usage, meaning "very small," is only found in "loose or hyperbolic" speech. Tsk.

Furthermore, "tone thing" is redundant. A tone is of necessity a thing; the word "thing" adds no meaning to the phrase. Why not just say "a teeny tone"? Even worse, "A teeny tone thing that gave me away" is not a complete sentence; it's a mere fragment.

Clark continues,

Then I explained that when you write a check, you want to hyphenate numbers with "ty" in the first part ...
Hmmm. "You want"? I think he means, "you ought." "Want" as a modal verb showing obligation or necessity is not listed at all in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Clark goes on,

We know that our desire for correct punctuation, spelling and usage is based on the fact that language is the building block of thought, of communication.
"[T]he building block"? Really? How can you build something with just one block? That's a failed metaphor, and it's factually incorrect to boot. We have many non-linguistic thoughts, for example when we compose, play, or listen to music. And we communicate with gesture, posture, and facial expressions as well as with language.

Later in the column he writes,

They're more than willing to say, "What's the rule for commas and quotation marks?"
If Clark meant to be precise, he would have written, "What are the rules ..." unless he meant to say that there is a single rule for the use of both commas and quotation marks. Or is he talking about some rule concerning the proper relationship between commas and quotation marks? At any rate, he hasn't made himself very clear.

Still further down, he writes,

Catherine, I am happy to report that "alright" is still considered nonstandard, even though it has become increasingly commonplace since it first appeared (in the 19th century).
Clark should have avoided the passive voice in "is still considered" (see Strunk again), but the passive is convenient for him, because it allows him to avoid saying just who, exactly, considers "alright" to be nonstandard. Furthermore, there is no reason put parentheses around "in the 19th century."

And Clark probably doesn't really mean that "alright" has become more commonplace ("devoid of originality or novelty" -- OED); he just means that it has become more common.

Had enough? Me too. I hope you found this post completely irritating. Because there really isn't much wrong with the style, grammar, or punctuation of Clark's column. My point was to show, by example, the pointlessness of being a language policeman.


Jim Rosenberg said...

Ditto. At least the offenders Clark~! bemoans are trying to communicate something other than, "I'm so smart!" Reading it, I kept thinking of that scene in "Annie Hall" where the guy is going on and Woody brings out McLuhan.

Anonymous said...

* I think you mean 'up with you have to put.'

Anonymous said...

No, no. Clearly that sentence should read, "...if you don't like it, it's just something for with which you must find yourself willing with to put up for." Sheesh.

jw said...

Working for the writing program, I have the "experts" on which (whom?) to rely. When the school newspaper reported that the Dean said, "You could come to me or the President," I said, "Shouldn't the Dean know better than to use such bad grammar?"

I was told that it was appropriate in the context of the entire quote. "Rhetoric trumps grammar."

Greensboro Teach-In said...

Myself, I found this to be a thing of which many find to be enlightening. Or at least important.

(Hilarious AND annoying!)

Anonymous said...

I'm just glad to know someone else has a usable copy of Strunk and White.


David Wharton said...

Strunk is available online, and it has much useful advice, though it's showing its age.

However(!), Strunk's advice on "however" is off-base. Thomas Hardy, for example, puts about half of his "howevers" at the beginning of sentences in just the way Strunk says he shouldn't.

I went after Clark on his own terms in order to show how pointless and tedious grammar-policing can be.

In fact, none of the pecadilloes he attacked in that particular column make the slightest difference with regard to precision of thought or expression, which is his pretext for criticism.

Jim Rosenberg said...

I've read Strunk dozens of times, but my favorite bit is in E.B. White's introduction when he says that Strunk used to say "Omit Needless Words!" three times, because he wanted to stress the point without using needless words. Ha!

David Wharton said...

I'm sure my students would be bitterly amused if they read this post, because I'm very picky about grammar, style, and punctuation on their papers. As the saying goes, I bleed red ink all over them.

But that's a different situation. They've hired me to do them a service, and in that context, I owe it to them to teach them the conventions of American written prose.

Anonymous said...

Ok, so his last column was a little smug.

He is usually dead on and pretty funny at the same time....

Pass the sauce, cranberry, yum!

This discussion can be carried on at Mebane's on Sunday.