Farmers and Cowmen in the Language Wars


“The Old Editor,” John McIntyre

A common, maybe the most common, framing of the conflict between language prescriptivists and descriptivists puts it in personal and psychologized terms: anal-retentive schoolmarms on the one side, unkempt hippies (probably raised by Dr. Spock-toting parents) on the other. That view, while not baseless, is reductive and not especially helpful, leading as it usually does to name-calling and bile rather than to a forward path on mutual ground.

Maybe a more useful lens is not personal but professional. A census of the participants in the debate would find that most of the leading descriptivists — people like Steven Pinker, Mark Liberman of Language Log, Geoffrey Nunberg of NPR’s Fresh Air, Kory Stamper and Peter Sokolowski of Merriam-Webster, and Lingua Franca’s own Geoffrey Pullum — are linguists or lexicographers by trade. (Pinker is a professor of psychology, but he has reached a point where he transcends categories.) I follow a lot of language people on Twitter, and my experience is that the strongest and sanest prescriptivist voices are those of copy editors: people like Mark Allen, Karen Conlin, Random House’s Benjamin Dreyer, The Washington Post’s Bill Walsh, The New Yorker’s Mary Norris, and the person who goes by the handle Mededitor.

The division makes sense. The goal of the descriptivists is to chart the way the language is used, in all its variegated glory. When confronted with (their term) a nonstandard usage, they have no interest in labeling it a “mistake” but rather want to investigate if it represents a change that’s on its way or perhaps has already arrived. On the other side, publishing houses and newspapers and other periodicals have long aligned themselves with the values of consistency and “correctness” of grammar, semantics, spelling, and punctuation. We can argue if they really should devote so much effort to this, but they do, and the people given the task are copy editors (called subeditors in Britain).

The two groups’ vocations are inherently in conflict. Were it not for that, one would hope they’d be like the warring parties that Oscar Hammerstein II wrote about in Oklahoma:

The farmer and the cowman should be friends,
Oh, the farmer and the cowman should be friends.
One man likes to push a plough, the other likes to chase a
But that’s no reason why they cain’t be friends.

If there can indeed be a rapprochement between the two groups, one might expect it to be brokered by professors — not of linguistics, but of English, history, and other subjects in which elegance, precision, and some degree of consistency are necessary compositional goals, but which offer more important ways of spending one’s time and effort than, say, fussing over whether disinterested can properly mean “uninterested.” With a few exceptions, however, including another Lingua Franca colleague, Lucy Ferriss, that hasn’t much happened.

Instead, it appears that some members of the two camps have emerged to try to disprove the claim that they “cain’t” be friends. Writing in The Economist, “Johnson” last month pointed out that Pinker’s latest book, The Sense of Style, contains not a few prescriptions, and that in successive editions of his usage manuals, Bryan Garner (not a copy editor but a lawyer, which often amounts to the same thing) has become ever more indulgent toward popular but “incorrect” formulations.

Someone who has been making even more radical peacemaking gestures toward the traditional enemy camp is John McIntyre, a copy editor for The Baltimore Sun, who writes a blog called You Don’t Say and, as you can see, actually looks like a male schoolmarm. (I mean that in the best sense of the word.) McIntyre, who refers to himself as “The Old Editor,” has in recent months railed against the “bogus” rules of no-split-infinitive and no-prepositions-at-the-end-of-sentences; mounted a spirited defense of singular they; and, in a single post, given his seal of approval to begs the question, hopefully, which in restrictive clauses, is comprised ofcould care less, starting sentences with conjunctions, anxious to mean eager, centers around, and impactful. He concluded that post, “For my part, I look back at learning these crotchets, and enforcing them, as a bitter waste of my time and talents.”

But all that was as nothing compared with what McIntyre wrote last Friday. He said that a sentence like “Me and Madison are going to the mall” “is not an error. It is merely a common form of non-standard English.” He added,

To insist that “me and someone” is an error … is to assume that standard English, one dialect of the language, is the only correct one and that anything varying from it must be wrong. If you think so, this assumption is causing needless pain and cluttering up the internet with pointless fulminations.

Of course, he did not say whether he would countenance a Sun writer’s using the “Me and …” form. I’m pretty sure he would not. Nevertheless, in my mind’s eye, I could see McIntyre exchanging his white button-down and bow tie for a tie-dyed T-shirt and letting the freak flag fly. And what’s that in the distance? It looks like the onetime antagonists gathering under the flag and making their way to the Promised Land of harmony and eternal peace.



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