Exactly 58 years ago today (I write on December 17, 2016), E.B. White wrote a letter of protest to his editor, J.G. Case, who had been trying to get him to take some grammar advice and modify some of the proscriptive ukases in a usage book that White was revising. White wouldn’t yield an inch to what he called “the Happiness Boys, or, as you call them, the descriptivists”:
I cannot, and will-shall not, attempt to adjust … to the modern liberal of the English Department, the anything-goes fellow. (I can write you an essay on like-as, and maybe that is the answer to all this; but softness is not.)
The conservative stubbornness was shrewd: White understood the general public’s masochistic yearning for strict linguistic discipline. The book remained judgmental, and ended up selling tens of millions. It still sells like hotcakes despite all that enemies like Jan Freeman of The Boston Globe can do. But I am not concerned with that today. I’m interested solely in the stereotype of the liberal from the English department (or of course the linguistics department), the guy whose willingness to allow will for shall, or like he intended for as he intended, stems — as White sees it — from the fact that he has no standards, and will allow anything at all.
The caricature of this advocate of laxity, with his “softness” and his cozy professorship, has endured down the decades.
Standard English is the [language] that gets you into the best universities, the highest-earning professions and the lists of published authors. It is all very well slumming it with those whose language excludes them from these privileged stockades when you can return to them every night.
Skapinker misreads Gowers’s subtle critiques of misguided word rage so badly that he depicts her as “slumming” among coarsely-spoken yokels, encouraging their poor usage (“telling people there is nothing wrong with the way they speak”), before retreating to the shelter of some gated community of the properly spoken. White’s tenured linguistic liberal is surely a fellow resident.
And here are some very similar remarks from Simon Heffer, in the introduction to Strictly English: An A to Z Guide to Avoidable Errors (2014), discussing academic linguists who had criticized a similar earlier book out of their “deep political views” about prescriptivism:
It’s all very well to tell a young person that he or she can be creative with the English language, while academic linguists sit back and revel in the patois that results. However, if that young person applies for a job, or writes a personal statement when seeking a place in higher education (other, perhaps, than in a linguistics department), he or she may well suffer consequences from being partly illiterate. …
From the comfort of a nicely endowed chair at a university it is easy to engage in the theoretical exercise of rubbishing attempts to keep English straight. It is small comfort to the victims of that ideology, some of whom will find themselves employed in callings beneath their potential as a consequence of the propagation of such idiotic ideas.
Where are they, these well-endowed linguistics professors who “revel in the patois” of “creative” grammar, accepting “partly illiterate” students as “victims” to major in linguistics and learn “idiotic” doctrines that will render them unemployable?
Could it be he has mistaken evidence-based work by linguists on controversial issues (like the positioning of however, or the modal-adjunct use of hopefully, or restrictive relative which, or modifiers after infinitival to) for advocacy of the insane view that standard English has no grammatical rules at all? Could he really read that carelessly?
Or (worse) could Heffer be obtuse enough to have confused (i) the study of nonstandard English dialects and creoles with (ii) the acceptance of grammatical laxity? I was an undergraduate at the University of York, where the late Robert Le Page encouraged research on Jamaican creole. But he didn’t confuse it with the language of instruction! One of his teaching assistants was the Trinidadian creole specialist Donald Winford, now a senior professor at Ohio State University. But before writing his Ph.D. dissertation on Caribbean creoles, Winford had earned a first-class degree in English literature from King’s College London. His scholarly works are in standard English, and he expected undergraduates like me to use that language too.
No professor I have ever met encourages “illiterate” usage, or academic writing in nonstandard dialects. Can anyone cite for me (in the comments area below or by email) an example of a real-life faculty member in any subject who even distantly resembles the White-Skapinker-Heffer stereotype of the hypocritical linguistic slum-visitor?Return to Top