Not Rage So Much, but a Modicum of Fear

Ben Yagoda, who knows me only from my writing, imagines me as “a sort of linguistic Yosemite Sam, constantly being provoked into a near-apoplectic rage“—the target of my fiery temper being stupid grammatical claims rather than pesky rabbits.

Well, I’m proud to be a cartoon character in the vivid dreamworld of a linguistically savvy colleague like Ben, but it ain’t true about the rage, pardner. I’m a calm, contented, and happy man. I hope people haven’t been reading the simulated towering fury at gol’darned prescriptivist varmints that I just occasionally affect for the purposes of writing entertaining posts, and mistaking it for the real me.

No, it doesn’t actually make me angry to see the prescriptive poppycock and grammatical misinformation that is spouted in journalistic and blogospheric sources every day. But a modicum of fear sometimes chills me a little. Fear at working in a world where it is so easy for a writer to just hang up a shingle saying “Grammar Expert” and be immediately taken to be a trusted grammatical authority. Fear at my fellow Americans’ being so willing and eager to submit themselves to the restraints of authoritarian rule by nongrammarians whose prescriptive edicts are baseless and whose grammatical knowledge is a tangle of confused naïve semantics.

For a topical example (of misinformation rather than prescriptivism, this one) take a look at Monday’s “Draft” column on The New York Times site. Read what Constance Hale says about verbs. It is scary that this sort of blunder can occur in something that is counted as Timesworthy:

Fundamentally, verbs fall into two classes: static (to be, to seem, to become) and dynamic (to whistle, to waffle, to wonder). (These two classes are sometimes called “passive” and “active,” … )

Good grief (as another cartoon character might say). Where does she get the idea that become is “passive” and wonder “active”? Active vs. passive is the contrast between Oswald assassinated Kennedy and Kennedy was assassinated by Oswald. All of Hale’s examples are intransitive verbs that don’t even have passives. She apparently thinks “passive” means “takes a predicative complement”—which is rather like using “krypton” to mean “nitrogen.”

And even ignoring that terminological misstep, the static/dynamic distinction is not useful. Hale’s column drifts on into strange figurative exposition as she tries to clarify it. She says static verbs “stand back, politely allowing nouns and adjectives to take center stage”; they “establish a relationship of equals … in delicate equilibrium”; you use them to “sit your subject down and hold a mirror to it” rather than to “plunge your subject into a little drama.” (Apparently They wondered when the wind would die down is more of a drama than The wind seemed about to tear the roof off the building.)

When I see such stuff I feel the way a physicist would feel if the science section of the Times turned to cyclists or airline pilots to write confidently about the four elements of the universe being earth, water, air, and fire, embroidering their claims with metaphorical babbling about fire and water being in a delicate equilibrium.

But angry? Me? Genuinely veins-standing-out red-faced-from-yelling angry? Nope. I ain’t fixin’ to get out there with a big iron on my hip and take aim at them ornery folks as don’t cotton to grammar and tell ’em “Say your prayers!”

I just find it a bit chilling, as a professor in a department of linguistics and English language, to realize that in my subject the kind of meaningless metaphorical mush that Constance Hale purveys is treated even by New York Times editors as serious advice on grammar and its application to sentence construction. We have a hundred years of work ahead of us just trying to drag public understanding of grammatical concepts forward into the early 20th century.

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