Sunday, December 06, 2009

Modern American Usage!


Our book today is Wilson Follett's toweringly smug, irresistibly arrogant 1966 classic Modern American Usage, a wonderful echo and amplification of H. W. Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage - only retooled for a different continent and enhanced with twenty to thirty-five percent more snark.

I usually avoid proscriptive grammar books like this one for two reasons, both of which, alas, are on full display in Follett: first, it's virtually impossible for them to avoid petty pedantry, and that can get a bit wearisome. Due to the sheer wattage of intelligences guiding this particular book, the 'petty' part is considerably muted, but oh, the pedantry still shows up! Take one little example among many, about the familiar sign "Trespassers will be prosecuted":

It may be pardonable pedantry to point out that criminal trespass, which might justify prosecution, has been abolished nearly everywhere. Trespass now gives warrant only for a civil suit. Ergo, all the stout trees bearing the familiar notice are unconstitutional and should be relabeled: Trespassers will be sued.

The second reason is more complex (pedantry at least can be funny)(as readers of Stevereads may have cause to know!) - proscription is inherently wrong-headed. It seeks to set in stone what is actually the most liquid of all human inventions: language. No matter how great a stickler you are for having things the way you like them (or the way you were taught them), language will not freeze. The most useful thing any concerned language-watcher can do is gamely chart the changes, not stand in the doorway insisting on the proper use of the plu perfect. Since Follett (et al) perforce believe in the Platonic ideal of an unchanging perfect usage, parts of Modern American Usage read like time capsules - no less interesting for that, but certainly less accurate. Here's a bit on connotations:

Some words and phrases of great import tend to acquire through literary or vernacular use a particular meaning or force that is at odds with the literal meaning. As a result, the purpose that such words and phrases can serve becomes limited, and these limitations can be thoroughly learned only by close listening or extensive reading; frequent repetition is needed to impress the exact scope and intention on the mind. People who use these expressions in their literal meaning, as though tradition had not done its work upon them, mislead at least some of their audience.

Thus, to have words with someone does not mean to exchange chitchat but to quarrel; to a degree means to a very high degree and not to a certain extent (to an extent, by the way, is not yet an idiom in formal English) ...


Half a century later, to an extent (and much more so to a certain extent) certainly is an idiom in formal English (to the very, very limited extent such a thing as formal English still exists at all), and to a degree has slipped back from that 'very high' status it apparently once enjoyed and is today once again a strong qualifier. And since nobody can foresee or prevent such shifts, building fenceposts before them will inevitably fail.

But the reason to read - and treasure - Modern American Usage is, paradoxically, that very certainty. Because when this book knows it's right, it really knows it's right, and the results can be enormously bracing. Here you will (finally!) learn the difference between a Foreward, an Introduction, and a Preface, and here you will find a thousand inconsequential details nailed down for all eternity in the following utterly delightful manner:

It is apparently easy to confuse the idea of inclusion with that of identity. Witness this assertion: Some of the 30 or more scientific and technical disciplines which this vigorous research-based organization is applying in its pioneering effort include [a list of eighteen items]. The whole thirty, of course, include the eighteen; but some of the thirty are the eighteen named. The writer incurred the usual consequence of trying to say something in two ways at once; he started by restricting his subject to a part of itself, but chose a verb that can go only with the unrestricted subject.

There's something wonderfully instructive about reading prose that sharp, that clearly-written, and that sure of its own sense. In that way it can honestly be said that reading Modern American Usage will make you a better writer. And the editors can't be faulted for their soaring passion for the importance of language. In their own preface/introduction/foreward, that passion is fully expressed (with a couple of side-orders of backhanded sexism and condescension, of course):

The poorly taught, the foreign-born, the ambitious young aiming at the professions, the unassuming men of business, the mothers whose minds are not given over to total permissiveness in child-rearing - each individual for his own good reasons struggles over dimly felt obstacles to make his meaning clear. He or she may seek help in the "Words" column of the monthly magazine or in the headier manual of usage, but all hope to find somewhere the way to better means of self-expression. The professional writer, of course, is concerned not with what is allowable or defensible, but rather what is good enough to need no defense. From the common root of their desires the artist and the user of language for practical ends share an obligation to preserve against confusion and dissipation the powers that over the centuries the mother tongue has acquired. It is a duty to maintain the continuity of speech that makes the thought of our ancestors easily understood, to conquer Babel every day against the illiterate and the heedless, and to resist the pernicious and lulling dogma that in language - contrary to what obtains in all other human affairs - whatever is is right and doing nothing is for the best.


Any book that opens with rhetoric that grand is surely worth reading. Unless it's Hitler's book, of course. Hence the trickiness of proscriptive writing, and its oddball allure.

5 comments:

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Ben Murphy said...

"Since Follett (et al) perforce believe in the Platonic ideal of an unchanging perfect usage, ..."

I cannot entirely agree with this. Follett may believe in the Platonic ideal of unchanging perfect usage, but he does not so believe "perforce". Some of those who attempt to lay down the rules of language are certainly aware of the fact that a language changes over time, and that no Platonic ideal exists. Sir Michael Dummett is an example. Someone who has made such contributions to philosophy of language is hardly unaware of the fact that language changes, and his work in philosophy of mathematics is resolutely opposed to the existence of Platonic ideals. Yet he is the author of "Grammar and Style: For Examination Candidates and Others", an unapologetically prescriptive work. So what gives?

In learning a language, argues Dummett, one must learn a set of rules. These rules exist only insofar as speakers observe them, and are subject to change over time. If enough people change the way they speak, the language changes as a result. But careless changes, based on ignorance, make the language harder to learn, and limit the possibilities of expression.

For example, some of my student write "would of" for "would've". Perhaps, if enough people did that, it would become a standard part of the English language. But imagine then the difficulties that this creates when teaching the language to non-native speakers, having to explain that a preposition can, in certain odd cases, become an auxiliary verb. The OED lists several examples of this use of "of" from respectable writers, including Charlotte Bronte, but, convinced as I am that this usage complicates the language without need, I treat her case not as a precedent that gives legitimacy to my students' writing, but as an illustration of the fact that even the best writers slip on occasion.

Ben Murphy said...

A more difficult example is Steve's use of "proscriptive" in describing the attitude of Follett and other to language. Perhaps this is normal usage in America. Perhaps this is a subtle joke, and he is deliberately likening those who lay down the rules of language to the likes of Sulla (given Steve's knowledge of ancient history, I wouldn't rule this out). But, dare I say it, perhaps it is simply that Steve wrote "proscribed" instead of "prescribed", and, as a result of this example, people will begin to use the two words interchangeably. To have two completely interchangeable words creates a redundancy in the language. It is the kind of change that should be resisted.

So, the job of the prescriptivist is not to enforce a platonic ideal, but, at a particular moment in the history of a language, to arbitrate in a manner that is beneficial for the language as a whole. It is in the nature of the case that the changes the prescriptivist writes about at most length will be those that he or she wishes to proscribe, thus adding to the stereotype of the prescriptivist as a Canute vainly commanding the seas of language to be still.

What further complicates the situation is that, at times, anyone who seeks to lay down the rules is compelled to make arbitrary choices. At a certain point, a ruler is bound to find himself or herself saying "It is so because I say so." People want to know the rules. They expect the experts to tell them the rules. But the experts on a language are, most frequently, experts on its history, and they are aware that history alone does not suffice for drawing up rules. J.R.R. Tolkien, in his time as Merton Professor of English at Oxford, once received a letter from two correspondents hoping he would settle an argument about whether the verb in a particular sentence should be single or plural. He refused, stating only that pedantry gives one answer, common-sense another, and you have to choose. He was right to refuse: Tolkien created many languages, but not English. The expertise that won him the Merton chair was that of a historian, and mere history could not answer the question. But then the letter was only passed to Tolkien because it was addressed to a non-existent person, the Regius Professor of English at Oxford. His correspondents felt a genuine need for an authority figure, someone who could say "It is so because I say it is so." Many knights who play such a task may think themselves servants of a Platonic ideal, but it is also possible to fight the good fight in the knowledge that you have no supernatural helper.

steve said...

yikes, ben! such passionate erudition! Thank you!

I actually meant it in the Sullan sense (great catch with the name, too, by the way!), since Follett and Fowler and company seem mostly bent on killing offenders and crushing opposition - these books (and all of their modern versions, like "Eats, Shoots, and Leaves") love to explain things, but they love even more to forbid things. And it's that sense I usually find unappealing, since it's usually dated before the printer's ink is dry.

But apart from your hideously unthinkable suggestion that I myself might unwittingly misuse English, I'm berapt by your eloquacity! Your students are lucky to have you!

Allen Sikorski said...

Steve-your review on "Modern American Usage" was a joy to read.
Ben Murphy's comment was a joy to speed read and skip over.