October 07, 2005

Ann Coulter, Grammarian

Suddenly everyone is a linguist. The latest to join the parade is Ann Coulter. In her 10/5/2005 column, "This is what 'Advice and Consent' Means", she offers the most creative socio-syntactic theory that I've encountered since Derek Bickerton suggested that our hominid ancestors developed language in order to scavenge dead elephants.

But you can't understand her hypothesis without some background, which I provide below the fold.

To start with, Ms. Coulter is not at all happy about the nomination of Harriet Miers for associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. She mentions President Bush's "Scottish Terrier Barney" as an alternative nominee, and complains that

Harriet Miers went to Southern Methodist University Law School, which is not ranked at all by the serious law school reports and ranked No. 52 by US News and World Report. Her greatest legal accomplishment is being the first woman commissioner of the Texas Lottery.

She explains that academic elites are normally to be shunned, quoting "William F. Buckley's line about preferring to be governed by the first 200 names in the Boston telephone book than by the Harvard faculty", but then she argues that "the Supreme Court is not supposed to govern us ... Being a Supreme Court justice ... [is] a real job."

Coulter further explains that

...if we were looking for philosopher-kings, an SMU law grad would probably be preferable to a graduate from an elite law school. But if we're looking for lawyers with giant brains to memorize obscure legal cases and to compose clearly reasoned opinions about ERISA pre-emption, the doctrine of equivalents in patent law, limitation of liability in admiralty, and supplemental jurisdiction under Section 1367 — I think we want the nerd from an elite law school. Bush may as well appoint his chauffeur head of NASA as put Miers on the Supreme Court.

OK, I think I've got it: we need to distinguish between governing and philosophizing, which we should assign to the graduates of lower-ranking schools; and "real jobs", which we should reserve for the elite. But some conservatives have not grasped this distinction:

One Web site defending Bush's choice of a graduate from an undistinguished law school complains that Miers' critics "are playing the Democrats' game," claiming that the "GOP is not the party which idolizes Ivy League acceptability as the criterion of intellectual and mental fitness."

I don't really see this as a partisan issue -- it seems to me that by the time someone gets to be 60 years old, you'd want to stop evaluating them by the rank of their alma mater, and instead evaluate their alma mater in terms of the quality of their accomplishments. Of course, I say this without having fully digested Coulter's distinction between governing or philosophizing and "real jobs"...

Anyhow, there's a fatal linguistic flaw in the presentation of the anti-elitist argument, according to Coulter:

(In the sort of error that results from trying to sound "Ivy League" rather than being clear, that sentence uses the grammatically incorrect "which" instead of "that." Web sites defending the academically mediocre would be a lot more convincing without all the grammatical errors.)

She's talking about the phrase "the GOP is not the party which idolizes Ivy League acceptability...", and what she's saying about it, I think, is:

  1. It's grammatically incorrect to use which in integrated ("restrictive") relative clauses.
  2. Misuse of which in such cases is a hypercorrection, caused by trying to sound "Ivy League".
  3. Committing such a hypercorrection in an anti-elitist discourse subverts the argument, by suggesting that the writer is a faux elitist-wannabe, neither securely elite nor secure in his non-elite identity.

This might be a subtle but devasting riposte -- if points (1) and (2) were true. Alas for Coulter, they're not.

Every so often, we have a little flurry of which vs. that posts here on Language Log. These are a representative sample:

Five more thoughts on the that rule (Arnold Zwicky, 5/22/2005)
What I currently know about which and that (Arnold Zwicky, 5/10/2005)
The people from the CCGW are here to see you (Arnold Zwicky, 5/7/2005)
Don't do this at home, kiddies! (Arnold Zwicky, 5/3/2005)
Which vs. that: integration gradation (Mark Liberman, 9/23/2004)
Which vs that: a test of faith (Mark Liberman, 9/20/2004)
Which vs. that: I have numbers (Geoff Pullum, 9/19/2004)
Sidney Goldberg on NYT grammar: zero for three (Geoff Pullum, 9/17/2004)

If you don't already know it, you'll learn from those posts that the prohibition against using which to introduce integrated relative clauses is a made-up "rule", unsanctioned by the usage of good writers in any era. Still, I think that there's a germ of sociolinguistic truth in Coulter's theory -- "which hunting" is a favorite sport of down-market American copy editors, so that the rate of which in integrated relatives is lower in American journalism than it is in British journalism. As a result, integrated which may indeed have an elitist flavor for those American readers who have noticed the difference.

Here's a table that Geoff Pullum quoted from work by Biber et al., making the point quantitatively:

 AmE newsBrE news
integrated relatives with which 8002600
integrated relatives with that 34002200
supplementary relatives with which 14001400
supplementary relatives with that 00

But you shouldn't think that integrated-relative which in America is the exclusive preserve of Ivy League limousine liberals and their social-climbing acolytes. The great Conservative Communicator himself, Ronald Reagan, was fond of this construction.

His speech "To Restore America", delivered 3/31/1976, contains four examples:

Tonight, I’d like to talk to you about issues. Issues which I think are involved-or should be involved in this primary election season.

It very quietly passed legislation (which the president signed into law) which automatically now gives a pay increase to every Congressman every time the cost of living goes up.

The truth is, Washington has taken over functions that don’t truly belong to it. In almost every case it has been a failure. Now, understand, I’m speaking of those programs which logically should be administered at state and local levels.

But there is one problem which must be solved or everything else is meaningless.

A few other examples selected at random from various other Reagan speeches, most of which contain several examples:

A freeze at current levels of weapons would remove any incentive for the Soviets to negotiate seriously in Geneva and virtually end our chances to achieve the major arms reductions which we have proposed.

Voices have been raised trying to rekindle in our country all of the great ideas and principles which set this nation apart from all the others that preceded it, but louder and more strident voices utter easily sold cliches.

The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks nothing is worth a war is worse. The man who has nothing which he cares about more than his personal safety is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.

Reagan also frequently quoted others using which in the way that Coulter thinks is ungrammatical:

And it was George Washington who said that “of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.”

Alexander Hamilton said, "A nation which can prefer disgrace to danger is prepared for a master, and deserves one."

Lord Acton of England, who once said, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” would say of that document, “They had solved with astonishing ease and unduplicated success two problems which had heretofore baffled the capacity of the most enlightened nations. They had contrived a system of federal government which prodigiously increased national power and yet respected local liberties and authorities, and they had founded it on a principle of equality without surrendering the securities of property or freedom.”

Does Coulter think that Reagan, Washington, Hamilton and Acton routinely committed "the sort of error that results from trying to sound 'Ivy League' rather than being clear", and that their essays and speeches "would be a lot more convincing without all the grammatical errors"?

I can't resist quoting Coulter herself, though I'm not suggesting that her usage is definitive:

O'Connor took sadistic glee in refusing to overturn Roe v. Wade in the face of the unending strife it has caused the nation. (And it hasn't been easy on 30 million aborted babies either.)
She co-authored the opinion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey which upheld Roe v. Wade, gloating: "(T)o overrule under fire in the absence of the most compelling reason ... would subvert the Court's legitimacy beyond any serious question."

[Jokes aside, Derek Bickerton's idea (about human language as a consequence of counteractive niche construction for scavenging megafauna) is a serious scientific hypothesis, carefully thought through and supported by an elaborate body of evidence. Ann Coulter's idea (about conservative essayists subverting their own argument by misusing which) is a parenthetical cheap shot thrown into a bizarre proposal for a division of labor between graduates of lower-ranked schools in the legislative and executive branches, and graduates of top-ranked schools in the judiciary. Or something.

Sorry, Derek. But you can see why I couldn't resist, can't you?]

Posted by Mark Liberman at October 7, 2005 12:01 AM