November 26, 2006

Prescriptivism in literature

I've been reading Thomas Pynchon's new novel, "Against the Day", and found a dramatization of linguistic prescriptivism on the very first page:

"Oh, boy!" cried Darby Suckling, as he leaned over the lifelines to watch the national heartland deeply swung in a whirling blur of green far below, his tow-colored locks streaming in the wind past the gondola like a banner to leeward. [...] "I can't hardly wait!" he exclaimed.

"For which you have just earned five more demerits!", advised a stern voice close to his ear, as he was abruptly seized from behind and lifted clear of the lifelines. "Or shall we say ten? How many times," continued Lindsay Noseworth, second-in-command here and known for his impatience with all manifestations of the slack, "have you been warned, Suckling, against informality of speech?" With the deftness of long habit, he flipped Darby upside down, and held the flyweight lad dangling by the ankles out into empty space -- "terra firma" by now being easily half a mile below -- proceeding to lecture him on the many evils of looseness in one's expression, not least among them being the ease with which it may lead to profanity, and worse. As all the while, however, Darby was screaming in terror, it is doubtful how many of the useful sentiments actually found their mark.

Though I'm sure that there are many literary examples of prescriptivism -- several in Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn alone, no doubt-- I can't actually call any to mind at the moment. Wait, I take that back, here's (a marginal) one from P.G. Wodehouse. Anyhow, send me your favorites, and I'll add them to this post.

[I thought that I remembered some prescription in Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn, but I haven't turned it up. However, I did find this interesting passage from A Tramp Abroad, which presents the view that "bad grammar" is a natural cause for shame:

Animals talk to each other, of course. There can be no question about that; but I suppose there are very few people who can understand them. I never knew but one man who could. I knew he could, however, because he told me so himself. He was a middle-aged, simple-hearted miner who had lived in a lonely corner of California, among the woods and mountains, a good many years, and had studied the ways of his only neighbors, the beasts and the birds, until he believed he could accurately translate any remark which they made. This was Jim Baker. According to Jim Baker, some animals have only a limited education, and some use only simple words, and scarcely ever a comparison or a flowery figure; whereas, certain other animals have a large vocabulary, a fine command of language and a ready and fluent delivery; consequently these latter talk a great deal; they like it; they are so conscious of their talent, and they enjoy "showing off." Baker said, that after long and careful observation, he had come to the conclusion that the bluejays were the best talkers he had found among birds and beasts. Said he:

"There's more TO a bluejay than any other creature. He has got more moods, and more different kinds of feelings than other creatures; and, mind you, whatever a bluejay feels, he can put into language. And no mere commonplace language, either, but rattling, out-and-out book-talk--and bristling with metaphor, too--just bristling! And as for command of language--why YOU never see a bluejay get stuck for a word. No man ever did. They just boil out of him! And another thing: I've noticed a good deal, and there's no bird, or cow, or anything that uses as good grammar as a bluejay. You may say a cat uses good grammar. Well, a cat does--but you let a cat get excited once; you let a cat get to pulling fur with another cat on a shed, nights, and you'll hear grammar that will give you the lockjaw. Ignorant people think it's the NOISE which fighting cats make that is so aggravating, but it ain't so; it's the sickening grammar they use. Now I've never heard a jay use bad grammar but very seldom; and when they do, they are as ashamed as a human; they shut right down and leave.

On first reading this, I thought that "bad grammar" might be a euphemism for cussing, but I don't think it is, since Jim Baker goes on to explain that

Now, on top of all this, there's another thing; a jay can out-swear any gentleman in the mines. You think a cat can swear. Well, a cat can; but you give a bluejay a subject that calls for his reserve-powers, and where is your cat? Don't talk to ME--I know too much about this thing; in the one little particular of scolding--just good, clean, out-and-out scolding--a bluejay can lay over anything, human or divine.


[From Luke Gibbs:

Not necessarily literature, but my all-time favorite example of grammatical authoritarianism comes from the film "Life of Brian."

[Brian is writing graffiti on the palace wall. The Centurion catches him in the act]
Centurion: What's this, then? "Romanes eunt domus"? People called Romanes, they go, the house?
Brian: It says, "Romans go home"
Centurion: No it doesn't ! What's the Latin for "Roman"? Come on, come on!
Brian: Er, "Romanus"!
Centurion: Vocative plural of "Romanus" is?
Brian: Er, er, "Romani" !
Centurion: [Writes "Romani" over Brian's graffiti] "Eunt"? What is "eunt"? Conjugate the verb, "to go"!
Brian: Er, "Ire". Er, "eo", "is", "it", "imus", "itis", "eunt".
Centurion: So, "eunt" is...?
Brian: Third person plural present indicative, "they go".
Centurion: But, "Romans, go home" is an order. So you must use...?
[He twists Brian's ear]
Brian: Aaagh ! The imperative!
Centurion: Which is...?
Brian: Aaaagh ! Er, er, "i" !
Centurion: How many Romans?
Brian: Aaaaagh ! Plural, plural, er, "ite" !
Centurion: [Writes "ite"] "Domus"? Nominative? "Go home" is motion towards, isn't it?
Brian: Dative !
[the Centurion holds a sword to his throat]
Brian: Aaagh ! Not the dative, not the dative ! Er, er, accusative, "Domum"!
Centurion: But "Domus" takes the locative, which is...?
Brian: Er, "Domum"!
Centurion: [Writes "Domum"] Understand? Now, write it out a hundred times.
Brian: Yes sir. Thank you, sir. Hail Caesar, sir.
Centurion: Hail Caesar ! And if it's not done by sunrise, I'll cut your balls off.

Daniel Barkalow adds a relevant note about this example:

Of course, the centurion in Life of Brian is a great example, because he messes up the rules he's enforcing. The locative is "domi" and it's used for locations, not motion towards. The fact that "domus" takes the locative is relevant, but it just means that accusative appears without a preposition (much like "go home" in English, in fact).

And from Simon Cauchi:

You asked us to send you our favourites. Here are two of mine, the first relating to speech and the second to writing.

The poem "The Schoolmaster" (subtitle "abroad with his son"), by C. S. Calverley (1831-84), consists of eight stanzas. The fourth stanza goes like this:

The noise of those sheep-bells, how faint it
   Sounds here -- (on account of our height)!
And this hillock itself -- who could paint it,
   With its changes of shadows and light?
Is it not -- (never, Eddy, say "ain't it") --
        A marvellous sight?

And there's also Calverley's "Forever", which I will copy out in full because all the online texts seem to be corrupt:

Forever; 'tis a single word!
  Our rude forefathers deem'd it two:
Can you imagine so absurd
        A  view?

Forever! What abysms of woe
  The word reveals, what frenzy, what
Despair! For ever (printed so)
        Did not.

It looks, ah me! how trite and tame!
  It fails to sadden or appal
Or solace -- it is not the same
        At all.

O thou to whom it first occurr'd
  To solder the disjoin'd, and dower
Thy native language with a word
        Of power:

We bless thee! Whether far or near
  Thy dwelling, whether dark or fair
Thy kingly brow, is neither here
        Nor there.

But in men's hearts shall be thy throne,
  While the great pulse of England beats:
Thou coiner of a word unknown
        To Keats!

And nevermore must printer do
  As men did longago; but run
"For" into "ever," bidding two
        Be one.

Forever! passion-fraught, it throws
    O'er the dim page a gloom, a glamour:
It's sweet, it's strange; and I suppose
        It's grammar.

Forever! 'Tis a single word!
  And yet our fathers deem'd it two:
Nor am I confident they err'd;
        Are you?


[Artur Jachacy sends in a selection from Stephen Fry's autobiography Moab is My Washpot:

I had had good teachers. At prep school an English master called Chris Coley had awoken my first love of poetry with lessons on Ted Hughes, Thom Gunn, Charles Causley and Seamus Heaney. His predecessor, Burchall, was more a Kipling-and-none-of-this-damned-poofery sort of chap, indeed he actually straight-facedly taught U and Non-U pronunciation and usage as part of lessons: 'A gentleman does not pronounce Monday as Monday, but as Mundy. Yesterday is yesterdi. The first 'e' of interesting is not sounded,' and so on.

I remember boys would get terrible tongue lashings if he ever overheard them using words like 'toilet' or 'serviette'. Even 'radio' and 'mirror' were not to be borne. It had to be 'wireless' and 'glass' or 'looking-glass'. Similarly we learned to say formidable, not formidable, primarily not primarily and circumstance not circumstance and never, for a second would such horrors as cirumstahntial or substahntial be countenanced. I remember the monumentally amusing games that would go on when a temporary matron called Mrs Amos kept trying to tell boys to say 'pardon' or 'pardon me' after they had burped. The same spin upper-middle-class families get into to this very day when Nanny teaches the children words that Mummy doesn't think are quite the thing.

'Manners! Say "pardon me".'

'But we're not allowed to, Matron.'

'Stuff and nonsense!'

It came to a head one breakfast. Naturally it was I who engineered the moment. Burchall was sitting at the head of our table, Mrs Amos just happened to be passing.

'Bre-e-eughk!' I belched.

'Say "pardon me", Fry.'

'You dare to use that disgusting phrase, Fry and I'll thrash you to within an inch of your life,' said Burchall, not even looking up from his Telegraph — pronounced, naturally, Tellygraff.

'I beg your pardon, Mr Burchall?'

'You can beg what you like, woman.'

'I am trying to instil,' said Mrs Amos, (and if you're an Archers listener you will be able to use Linda Snell's voice here for the proper effect, it saves me having to write 'A am traying to instil' and all that), 'some manners into these boys. Manners maketh man, you know.'

Burchall, who looked just like the 30s and 40s actor Roland Young — same moustache, same eyes — put down his Tellygraff, glared at Mrs Amos and then addressed the room in a booming voice. 'If any boy here is ever told to say "Pardon me", "I beg your pardon", or heaven forfend, "I beg pardon", they are to say to the idiot who told them to say it, "I refuse to lower myself to such depths, madam." Is that understood?'

We nodded vigorously. Matron flounced out with a 'Well, reelly!' and Burchall resumed his study of the racing column.

Some readers may need a refresher course in the mysteries of the whole U vs. non-U thing, which most Americans find roughly as familiar as the interpretation of West African scarification patterns. ]

[And how could I forget this previously posted passage from Wodehouse's Jeeves in the Offing:

Normally as genial a soul as ever broke biscuit, this aunt, when stirred, can become the haughtiest of grandes dames before whose wrath the stoutest quail, and she doesn't, like some, have to use a lorgnette to reduce the citizenry to pulp, she does it all with the naked eye. "Oh?" she said, "so you have decided to revise my guest list for me? You have the nerve, the--- the---"

I saw she needed helping out.

"Audacity," I said, throwing her the line.

"The audacity to dictate to me who I shall have in my house."

It should have been "whom," but I let it go.

"You have the---"


"---the immortal rind," she amended, and I had to admit it was stronger, "to tell me whom"---she got it right that time---"I may entertain at Brinkley Court and who"---wrong again---"I may not. Very well, if you feel unable to breathe the same air as my friends, you must please yourself. I believe the 'Bull and Bush' in Market Snodsbury is quite comfortable."


Posted by Mark Liberman at November 26, 2006 02:57 PM