Not Cricket

Game of Cricket
(by Dave Pearson via flickr)

It is a slow and tedious game of men slowly walking about in long white trousers, and a metaphor for British fair play. As a spectator sport, cricket seems to me about as interesting as watching paint dry, only without the same sense of achievement. Yet Lynne Truss is a smart and funny writer even on that unpromising subject. Some of her essays on the game have had me not just chuckling aloud but actually grasping a few things about the sport.

Recently, however, Truss returned to another of her favorite topics: the English language. And there she didn’t leave me feeling quite so happy.

Eats, Shoots & Leaves, a linguistically uninformed surprise best seller ten years ago, grumbled about comma placement and raged against missing apostrophes. Her latest fulminations (in The Telegraph, January 5, 2014) have to do with people leaving out spaces that differentiate certain word sequences from nonsynonymous compound words: any oneanyone; any wayanyway; come downcomedown; every dayeveryday; may bemaybe; no bodynobody; one selfoneself; some timessometimes; super naturalsupernatural; throw awaythrowaway; etc.

She manages to miss the most noteworthy such example: The verb phrase can not move attributes an ability to remain stationary, whereas cannot move attributes an inability to do anything else. Many people mistakenly include the space despite intending the latter meaning. But contexts where communication is under threat are not common. You can construct them (see the final sentence of this post, or the classic example A good Christian can not attend church and still be saved, due to semanticist Larry Horn); but ambiguity attributable to word-space errors is rare in nature.

On such tiny orthographic details, over which Truss and I have no disagreement, she bases an indictment of my whole profession. The academic study of the English language, she claims, is “entirely concerned with looking cool and broad-minded and ‘descriptive’,” instead of taking “some positive action to remedy literacy levels”:

A “descriptive” linguist is one that monitors the changes in language, and in case you think there is any other kind of linguist, there isn’t. “Prescriptive” does exist as a term in linguistic circles, but only as a powerful juju word used against bad people who model themselves on King Canute. … We hear all the time about a crisis in literacy, and at the same time there are well-paid academics just sitting back and enjoying the show. Imagine if other academic fields were dominated entirely by a “descriptive” ethos: we could have “descriptive” epidemiologists, perhaps, who just sat back with a clipboard and monitored the way we all died from contagious diseases. Or “descriptive” architects, who collected large salaries for watching and making detailed notes while all the buildings fell down.

What a catalog of nonsense. “Monitors the changes in a language” is nothing like our job description. Linguists don’t get paid for “just sitting back and enjoying the show”; we have to figure stuff out. We have to discover the principles governing the way the language actually works.

But because we sometimes find evidence that refutes popular misconceptions about what the rules are, Truss irrationally concludes that we must therefore hate all rules and delight in anarchy.

Her putative disanalogy with epidemiology is utterly misguided: Monitoring the spread of contagious diseases is exactly what epidemiologists do. She seems to have confused epidemiological research with clinical medical practice. (And let me add that architects are extremely interested in how and why unsound buildings collapse, and so they should be.)

She apparently thinks that I should forget the attempt to formulate accurate generalizations about the rule system of English: Instead I should become an activist battling to retard linguistic change.

My job is not to prevent the changes that may emerge in the coming century. I agree that The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language needs to correctly distinguish the adverb maybe from the auxiliary verb sequence may be, but its authors are not obliged to fight to keep them forever separate, or to seek out and humiliate people who confuse them. Those like Truss whose dream is to correct people who write It maybe time to act on this, etc., should sign up as grade-school English teachers.

Above all, I resent her accusation of broad-mindedness. I’m not broad-minded about grammatical errors: I hate them. When a Language Log reader (Brian Tiemann) recently pointed out to me that the Google Documents spell-checker suggests changing all right to alright, I was horrified.

I wish Truss would return to writing about cricket, where she is amusing, and for all I know, maybe well-informed.

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