Serious thinkers about language have lately been arguing that we should jettison some of the rules that determine verbal felicity.
You know which rules they are talking about--the Victorian and pre-Victorian rules about proper English prose style.
By now everyone knows that academics cannot write. They seem preternaturally drawn to turgid prose, the kind that obfuscates more than it clarifies. Were anyone to accuse them of writing improper English they will reply that they must write that way because their thoughts are so complex. In truth, they write that way because they do not know what they are talking about.
If you know your subject and are not trying to be willfully obscure, you should state your point clearly, concisely… and, dare I say, grammatically.
You might feel that Victorian prose style and its rules for language usage were constraining, but those who obeyed them were far better writers than many of today’s intellectuals.
The writers and editors who are currently inveighing against the old rules of usage declare them to be arbitrary impositions. Since language usage is established by the free market, they suggest, it should not be determined by pedants sitting around a musty room.
Also, editor Oliver Kamm points out--after Noam Chomsky--children speak grammatically before they learn the rules of grammar. They are thus not following rules they have learned.
This demonstrated, Chomsky said, that the human brain is wired in a certain way. Learning language activates certain kinds of brain functions, and that means that it cannot happen any which way.
For the most part, the new linguistic rebels are not telling us to throw out grammar and syntax. They are honing in on “usage.” In particular, they are attacking more formal writing, as opposed to more lax and idiomatic writing.
Kamm is right to point out the snobbery involved, and also the fact that language usage identifies people as belong to one or another social class. And he is right to note that different events require different diction:
A speech delivered at a public event marking a great tragedy, for instance, demands a highly formal register; commentary on the Super Bowl needs a conversational tone. If you mix them up, you have failed not just in standards of language but in proper behavior as well.
Of course, one need not comment on the Super Bowl in a conversational tone. It depends on how well you write in that tone. Why can’t a good writer write about the Super Bowl in a formal register? Depending on the writer, it might be wonderful or it might be a calamity.
Now, the new linguistic libertines have told us to jettison the rules that used to be categorized as good usage.
Not only does good usage distinguish people by class, it must also constrain our ability to express our feelings.
And yet, what makes you think that the purpose of writing is to express yourself. Writing is more about communicating with a reader. Sometimes, when writing about a character, bad speech might be appropriate. Unless you are writing poetry or a prose poem, one should avoid such verbal infelicities.
When you follow the rules of usage you are respecting the sensibility of your reader. Good writers always try to respect their readers.
Since Kamm is British he understands that more formal speech signifies membership in a higher class. Great Britain notoriously classifies people according to accent, word usage and speech patterns. Remember My Fair Lady.
Evidently, his argument against rules is an argument against social hierarchy. Or better, he is making a multicultural argument that all standards are bad.
Unfortunately, social hierarchies are endemic to the human species and to primate species also. If hierarchies are determined by the way people use language, then anyone, regardless of pedigree, can rise or fall socially. Think My Fair Lady.
It’s better to make social mobility depend on manners, even mannerisms than to make it a function of the accident of birth.
In any event, the new rule-breakers emphasize several points.
They will allow you to split infinitives. Kamm offers this one: “to boldly go.”
Frankly,the phrase is not acceptable English. Anyone who can’t do better than that is simply lazy.
They will also allow you to dangle your participles.
You will probably understand what I mean if I say: Going to work the sun was coming up, but most dangling participles are confusing. The sentence says that the sun was going to work and that is simply a lazy.
Kamm also accepts double negatives. If it was good enough for the Rolling Stones, it should be good enough for your writing.
Of course, when Jagger, Richards and company sang: “I can’t get no satisfaction,” they were being poetic; they were speaking in character. They were using speech to define a certain kind of character.
If you are writing rock ballads you can use double negatives all you want. You can even caricature the lower classes. Otherwise you should avoid them. True, sometimes they work. Most of the time they don’t.
And linguistic libertines will happily allow you to use passive constructions and even to overload your writing with the verbal copula.
Here they are on firmer ground.
Who does not remember this:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
Apparently, if Dickens can do it, you can do it too.
In truth, one would happily allow a college student to try his or her hand at writing like Dickens. How else are you going to learn?
But, if you are writing for publication and have less talent than Dickens--that means, just about everyone-- you should prefer active to passive constructions.
Sentence 1: There was a dog running down the road.
Sentence 2: A dog was running down the road.
The second is better than the first, self-evidently. Only lazy writers use think that the two are equal.
Language usage is a marketplace, but it is not a free-for-all. It might be commonplace for many people to use the word “ain’t” in conversation, but that does not make it good or right. Many people use grammatically incorrect structures like “I seen,” but that does not mean that you should be using them in a serious essay… unless, of course, you put them in the mouth of a character or you are trying to affect a certain tone or create a certain mood.
In Great Britain, and even in America sprinkling our conversation with “ain’t” or grammatical mistakes like “I seen” will cause people to see you as belonging to a lower class. We may not like this, but it seems to be part of our social reality.
You might say that bad English is more expressive. It smacks of authenticity, of spontaneity. It feels like it has come straight from the gut.
It reminds us of method acting, a scourge on American theatre, wherein the actor is induced to become a character and then to mumble and emote… generally ruining the audience’s enjoyment of the play.
If we seek social harmony, harmonious usage should be preferred to cacophonous expressions. Most people avoid vulgarity and even profanity because they do not contribute to good relationships.
Which is better: raw human emotion, the kind that overwhelms your language and makes you feel authentic--while also making you sound like a fool-- or good usage, representing a goal toward which everyone can strive.
As Kamm argues, the war against good usage is a war against propriety. It is also a war against decorum, about the impulse to keep your private feelings more private.
Kamm explains where it all comes from:
Prescriptive style guides like Strunk & White’s “Elements of Style” are the direct descendants of 18th-century grammarians who first defined what it was to speak “proper English.” In fact, these grammarians really just meant the dialect that grew up in and around London; their manuals were intended to teach propriety to an emerging merchant class.
Is there something wrong with propriety? Does Kamm believe that different people should use different table manners at dinner? Clearly, one might make the argument that the way you hold a spoon or a knife is not graven in stone, but still do you want each individual to have his own table manners?
Of course, if you are watching a movie in which people demonstrate very poor table manners—think La Grande Bouffe—you might find it dramatically compelling. If you should happen to be dining with people who eat like pigs, you will not find it quite as engaging.