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Communicating With the Public

The last time I dared to look at Tom Chivers’s article about my work and my views online (published inSeven, the Sunday Telegraph magazine, March 16, 2014, 16–17), the number of comments had risen to more than  1,400. And they formed a sorry spectacle. I couldn’t bear to do much more than skim a small quantity of the discussion. Even if the average comment length is no more than 50 words, the whole thing must be approaching monograph length. But not monograph quality.

If I had ever thought that the article might convey to the British public a glimpse of what linguists do and what the scientific study of language is like, I am disabused of that now. People’s main interests seem to be their own idées fixes; many of them ignored what Chivers actually wrote.

Not even the magazine’s headline writers seemed to have read his article. The online version is headed “Are ‘grammar Nazis’ ruining the English language?,” but of course I never mention ruining the language. English is in great shape, well maintained by its hundreds of millions of speakers, and so robust that nothing anybody does will be able to ruin it. The people who whine about how split infinitives are awful and prepositions should never end sentences are certainly wasting the time of educators and copy editors, but even if they were successful in their quest to reduce the frequency of the constructions they hate, that wouldn’t affect English itself.

The print version sits below an even sillier main header: “Do these words drive you crazy?” Neither Chivers nor I say anything about words driving anyone crazy. Our long conversation last September, over a lunch at the Strand Palace Hotel in London, never touched on word peeving. The topic was 100 percent grammar. Even when pressed for an example of a personal linguistic dislike, I chose a syntactically composed phrase, not a word. (I selected people of color, a strange euphemism from the diversity business that has always seemed to me to have a holier-than-thou stylistic flavor and a syntactically unEnglish structure. But use it if you like it.)

Agreeing to an interview with a journalist who wants to write an article about the modern approach to grammar means getting into the business of trying to communicate points to a wider public. Chivers chose the points to include, and among the ones on which he chose to quote me were these:

  • Linguists have discovered a great deal about English since 1900 but schools don’t teach it.
  • Linguists are neither “bow-tie-wearing martinets” nor “flaming liberals who think everything should be allowed.”
  • The sentence Much of the data that needs processing are corrupted is flatly ungrammatical.
  • I’m an educational conservative, firmly committed to teaching Standard English.
  • I never corrected my son’s grammar when he was young, nor thought it necessary.
  • Grammatical rules are tacitly negotiated in a community. Linguists try to figure out what the rules are, using evidence.
  • Those who don’t like Standard English the way it is could always use some other dialect that they prefer.

One of the 1,400 commenters on these views said this:

Has anyone ever heard of Geoffrey Pullum? No? I thought not. His thesis is about as daft as some unknown professor of mathematics suddenly deriving self publicity by telling the world that 2+2 can mean anything you want. It doesn’t have to be 4, it could really be any modern number of which you may care to think.

A few remarks about how language can be looked at objectively and you need evidence to support a claim about the rules, and immediately I’m compared to a mathematical lunatic stipulating that 2 and 2 do not make 4! (And by someone who believes that “number of which you may care to think” is better English than “number you may care to think of”!)

The first email I got about Chivers’s article was from someone who read so carelessly that he thought I had written it, and that I used the phrase “grammar police.” He told me sternly:

Sir:

In you [sic] article you ask whether what you call the “grammar police” are ruining our language. No, they are not. When I ran a business I would not employ anyone who could not write a simple grammatical sentence on the application form.

So now I’m an idiot businessman who approves of grammar errors on application forms and is happy to take on illiterate employees?

In the immortal words of the Monty Python “Argument Clinic” sketch, this isn’t argument; this is abuse.

And I’m not even a public intellectual. I’m just a private intellectual who agreed to let Tom Chivers buy me lunch and put a voice recorder on the table. Doubtless real public intellectuals suffer far worse.

Our university administrations often tell us academics that they want us to engage with the public. But it often seems to me that on this topic the public doesn’t want engagement. They don’t even want an occasional date. They know what they already think and they’ll tell you angrily what it is; but they won’t necessarily listen, will they?

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