Sartor Resartus

The opening of Thomas Carlyle's 1836 novel (in English "The Tailor Re-Tailored"). Language and clothing are more alike than they may at first appear to be.

I have a friend who holds a named professorship at a prestigious liberal-arts college. He owns a sharp-looking black suit, with thin lapels, that he often wears to conferences. My friend enjoys good beer. One day, in search of a six-pack, he journeyed to a nearby working-class tavern that sells a wide variety of beer. As he was paying for his purchase, another customer looked him over and said, “Are you an undertaker?” My friend said, “Excuse me?” The man repeated, “Are you an undertaker?” Recounting the incident to me, my friend had no idea if his interlocutor was being funny or serious.

I was reminded of this story by Joan Acocella’s New Yorker review of Henry Hitching’s new book, The Language Wars: A History of Proper English. (I have not read the book, though I intend to—I greatly enjoyed his previous work, The Secret Life of Words.) The review made this person cross, and also this person and this person. Among their (legitimate) gripes were that Acocella misidentified John Rickford as a linguistic prescriptivist, rather than a stone-cold descriptivist, and more broadly her characterization of descriptivists as maintaining that languages do not follow any rules. Less legitimate were complaints that The New Yorker had the temerity to allow its dance critic to review a book about language.

There are other problems with the review, too, including the way it tends to overlook the profound differences between speaking and writing, and the way it keeps dragging in texts and concepts (Eric Partridge on slang? Alan Ross on U and non-U? Political correctness? Postmodernism?) that don’t have very much to do with each other. But my main complaint is that the whole subject is boring.

That’s right, I’m talking prescriptivism versus descriptivism. Basically the issue boils down to the following axioms:

  • English transpires in various (not mutually exclusive) registers, sub-registers, sub-sub-registers, and so on. One such might be British spoken upper-class girls’ school casual; another, American written academic humanities article; a third, text messages among college-educated people in their 20s and 30s.
  • Among the participants in each of these, there is, at any given moment, a general shared understanding about what is expected and accepted diction, syntax, and usage. In the upper registers, you can find versions of it in dictionaries and style manuals.
  • The shared understanding changes over time, as new words and idioms become established, traditional ones take on new meanings, grammar and syntax mutate (see the subjunctive), and slang or other nonstandard expressions make their way to the middle of the road.
  • Especially in the more established registers, there is disagreement over the pace of change. Some people think it should be relatively swift, and others think it should be relatively slow. Neither side has any actual influence on the course of events.
  • And that’s all there is to it.

Which brings me back to my friend and his black suit. It is just the thing for academic conferences, and as out-of-place in that bar as the sentence “Me and my wife has been married for 25 years” would be on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times. Choosing your clothes is like choosing your words: You do both in much the same way as the others in your group do. When you go outside the group, you have to rethink your approach in order to fit in. Within groups, there are a small number of innovators and outliers. Some of their formulations take hold, but most do not. In any case, when people rail against new developments–”They’re wearing shorts in the theater!”–they’re commenting, more than anything else, about themselves.

The dictionaries and manuals are helpful, but it’s not always easy to discern what current conventions are. Much if not most of what I do in the classroom is trying to teach students to grasp and effectively deploy the accepted rules and standards of certain kinds of writing for publication. I may start calling my class “Dress (Your Prose) for Success!”

Earlier, I said the whole subject is boring. That was hyperbole. The changing language is splendid spectator sport, in my humble opinion. And the classroom is an excellent vantage point from which to identify and assess the new words and usages, allowing you to put your money on the ones you’ll think will prevail. Right now, I’ve got my eye on a couple of contenders, including amongst (weirdly popular as a replacement for among), the extra of in not too big of a deal, and the ever-popular they as gender-neutral singular pronoun. If you want to handicap these or others, or talk about why and how they may have gone viral in the first place, I am so there.

However, if you want to make a case that they are reprehensible, symptomatic, or perfectly OK, you can wake me when the conversation’s over.



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