It’s Finally Time To Stop Correcting People’s Grammar, Linguist Says

"Language -- which all human societies have in immense grammatical complexity -- is far more interesting than pedantry."
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True rage -- the kind that results in personal jabs and expletive spews -- seems only to arise from a handful of topics. Most are maddening because they pertain to complex issues, laws and beliefs that actively cause harm: gobbling up natural resources, supporting certain political candidates who bad-mouth women and immigrants.

But there are also those divisive subjects that, puzzlingly, manage to rouse anger in spite of being totally unimportant. Dietary preferences (#TeamBread). Fantasy football picks. And the most corrosive rage fuel: grammatical choices.

“Choices” is an important clarifier, at least according to Oliver Kamm, a linguist who recently wrote a book about the problem with pedantry, Accidence Will Happen.

A recovering pedant himself, he now speaks for the boldest form of descriptivism, arguing that if humans use a word outside of its traditional meaning, the new, creative use is now valid, simply by virtue of having been used at all. So, "literally" can mean “figuratively,” and “irregardless” can mean “regardless.” Adverbs -- probably the mostly hotly debated part of speech -- are welcome in Kamm’s world, as are split infinitives and sentences that start with “and.”

With such laudably lax rules, it would seem that Kamm could accept a pile of word salad as a passable essay, a barrage of “loser”-ridden tweets as a cogent argument. That’s not the case. Kamm values style over rigid regulations, but operates under one important linguistic rule: words that work against modern mores are off limits.

Below, he discusses his life as a “reformed stickler,” and his dislike for the offensive word “authoress.”

Pegasus Books

You call pedantry boring and a host of other things. Were you once a pedant yourself? What helped you break free of that line of thinking?

Oh, definitely. I say in the book that I'm a reformed stickler. I was quite a moderate one, happily stranding prepositions and fusing participles, but I did believe that it was important to hold fast to the supposedly traditional meanings of “disinterested,” “enormity” and the like. I feared we might erode the capacity for discriminate expression if we abandoned them. And I was wrong.

What changed me was realizing that language isn't some delicate cultural artifact but an integral part of being human. I found this out by reading what scholars of language -- linguists, grammarians and cognitive scientists -- say about the subject. It fascinated me. Language -- which all human societies have in immense grammatical complexity -- is far more interesting than pedantry.

What are some examples of linguistic changes that were attested at the time, and accepted -- even beloved, for their efficiency or evocativeness -- today?

Language is always changing. There are some scholars who believe it tends to greater efficiency over time but this is not a unanimous view by any means. Words shift their definitions, new words enter the language, and stylistic conventions and rules of grammar change.

One of the most dramatic changes in English grammar is the steady decline in inflection for case: we retain it only in a few pronouns (we/us and who/whom). This doesn't make English any more or less expressive or evocative than it was in, say, Chaucer's time: it's just different.

You emphasize that when talking about language, we should discuss style rather than “correctness” -- does this approach to language have limits?

It's possible, of course, to make mistakes in grammar or meaning. But fluent users of English very rarely do this. They may think they do but in fact their grasp, from a very young age, of the rules of grammar is of extraordinary complexity and expertise. That's why I think language tuition is better focused on the need to express yourself to the right audience. Linguists refer to "register" -- the different styles and ranges of formality we adopt for particular audiences. That's not all there is to effective writing and speaking but it's not stressed enough in usage guides.

Do you have a favorite grammatical “error”?

I enjoy splitting infinitives, knowing that they not only accord with the grammar of Standard English but conform to its prosody as well (as they typically alternate stressed and unstressed syllables). Splitting infinitives is not just the right but the duty of the stylish writer.

You mention in your book some words -- such as authoress -- that are almost always unjustifiable. What are some others, and what, to you, makes a word unjustifiable?

A word is unjustifiable when it's used in defiance of modern mores. "Authoress" is a slighting term for which there is no masculine equivalent. The use of "he" as a singular generic pronoun is also no longer justifiable.

Adverbs are a hotly debated part of speech recently; many writers say they’re extraneous, and indicate that a better, more specific verb could’ve been used. What are your thoughts on adverbs?

Adverbs are essential. The writers who caution against adverbs are talking nonsense. The linguist Geoff Pullum cites the slogan of a well-known British department store: "Never knowingly undersold." Anyone who believes that adverbs are dispensable would presumably have no objection to rewriting this as "Undersold."

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