February 23, 2007

Amid this vague uncertainty, who walks safe?

James Dreier has drawn my attention to a recent opinion piece that presents in a remarkably clear form the failure of my profession to educate the public. The author is Alex Rose, identified as "a writer and editor based in New York", and his essay, "Does form follow function?", appeared in The Providence Journal on 2/23/2007. It starts like this:

"NEW YORK -- DRIVE SAFE," reads a flashing traffic sign on Tillary Street in Brooklyn. Is that wrong? It depends on whom you ask.

A linguist such as my cousin would say no; “drive safe” effectively performs its linguistic function in that no one misunderstands its intended message. An English professor, such as my father, however, would say yes; in standard written English there are grammatical rules stipulating that the imperative verb “drive” be qualified by the adverb “safely,” not the adjective “safe.”

No doubt Mr. Rose knows what his father would say. But I'd hope that a generic English professor, while locating her red pencil, would pause to wonder what the connection of the adjective safe to the verb drive really is here. Is it the non-standard adverbial use seen in phrases like "that was real nice" or "my leg hurts fierce"? Or does it have something in common with Shakespeare's "safe mayst thou wander, safe returne agen"?

She'd surely stop to think of the famous passage from Henry V that starts

He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Shall yearely on the vygill feast his friends,
And say, to morrow is S. Cryspines day...

Once started on this train of throught, she would probably remember the famous passage from Algernon Swinburne's "The Garden of Proserpine" (1905), quoted in Jack London's Martin Eden:

From too much love of living,
From hope and fear set free,
We thank with brief thanksgiving
Whatever gods may be
That no life lives for ever;
That dead men rise up never;
That even the weariest river
Winds somewhere safe to sea.

If she specializes in 17th-century drama, she might recall Francis Beaumont's line (Philaster, 1679) "An innocent man may walk safe among beasts". And as a lover of early 20th-century poetry, she might well think of Wilfred Owen's lines

He feels, this devil feels; then, mark my wisdom,
For all his plots he, too, is lost, is lost!
Amid this vague uncertainty I alone
Walk safe ...

So our generic English Professor might ask Mr. Rose, in all scholarly humility, red pencil in hand: should these passages also be amended to use safely rather than safe?

Meanwhile, a generic linguist might wonder whether these adjectives are some sort of predicative complement. If he's interested in contemporary culture, he might wonder whether this case is related to the structure of Apple's slogan "Think Different", discusssed last year by our own non-generic linguist Eric Bakovic ("Think this", 5/14/2006 ). And having read Eric's post, he might comment, as I did, that

The “think different” slogan always seemed to me to be an echo of catchphrases with postverbal appositives (or whatever they are) like “Think Big”, or “Dress British, Think Yiddish”. Note that there are some verbs, like “look” and “act”, which take such predicate-phrases freely. The generalization to “think” is an easy one, even if the pattern is not quite so regular or free in that case.

If he knows something about the history of the English language, he might note, as John Cowan did, that

Adverbs in adjective form have been around in English since forever, or at least since the fall of final short e, which was the original adverb ending. In OE, we had a contrast between læt ’slow’ and læte ’slowly’, but later these came to be pronounced identically. Similar stories stand behind go fast and hit hard and many other adverbs, most of them monosyllabic.

Indeed, the ModE adverb ending -ly was -lice in OE, a compound of -lic (same as lic ‘body, corpse’ > lich, lyke ‘corpse’) and this same original -e.

But Alex Rose wouldn't hear any of this, being busy girding his loins for intellectual combat:

This conflict lies at the heart of the so-called “Usage Wars,” the epic battle between the “Descriptivists” and the “Prescriptivists.”

To a Descriptivist, there are no such things as “correct” or “incorrect” where language is concerned.

There is only the multi-faceted spectrum of human communication and the myriad ways in which people convey meaning to one another. Descriptivists correctly note that language, like etiquette or fashion, is largely a function of class; a society’s official rules of grammar and lexicon reflect the attitudes of whoever happens to be in power.

The Prescriptivists, however, believe that language is as much an art form as a utility. It’s one thing to name objects and command that traffic laws be obeyed, another thing to express oneself with clarity, precision and cultivation. It’s the difference between playing a scale and playing a sonata; between eating for nourishment and eating for pleasure. One way gets the job done, the other gets it done well.

In untangling the confusions in this passage, it's hard to know where to start.

Let me decline to enlist on either side of this concocted War of the 'Scriptivists, and speak instead on behalf of a third group: the Rational People. We believe in making value judgements about language use: some writers are better than others, and even good writers sometimes make poor choices and outright mistakes. But we also believe in the value of facts, both about linguistic history and about current usage. We're unwilling to accept the assertions of self-appointed linguistic authorities about what is "right" and "wrong" in standard formal English, if these assertions conflict with the way that the best writers write. We understand that vernacular forms of English are not faulty or degenerate approximations to the formal standard -- instead, they're just, well, vernacular. We're willing to accept, as Horace was, that new words and structures, and new uses of old words and structures, can be a valuable addition even to the most formal linguistic registers.

In a nutshell: we don't worship our own prejudices, and we're more curious than censorious.

There's a characteristic psychological dynamic here. People like Mr. Rose see a bit of writing or talk that irks them. They're not interested in analyzing the problematic usage, tracing its history, looking at its contemporary distribution and its relationship to other phenomenon, exploring the nature of their own reaction to it -- no, they just want to make those people stop, dammit. And they want the rest of us to join them in howling at the miscreants. If we suggest a more temperate investigation, or dare to question whether a crime has been committed at all, they turn their wrath on us as well. In fact, our analytic detachment seems to annoy them even more than the object of their jihad does.

Some previous attempts to explain the perspective of the Rational People can be found in these earlier Language Log posts:

"Dangling etiquette" (12/14/2003)
"Cullen Murphy draws the line" (12/27/2003)
"At a loss for lexicons" (2/9/2004)
"Sidney Goldberg on NYT grammar: zero for three" (9/17/2004)
"Not a word!" (11/17/2004)
"'Everything is correct' versus 'nothing is relevant'" (1/26/2005)
"The fellowship of the predicative adjunct" (5/12/2005)
"Zero for three on grammar, minus three, makes -3" (6/8/2006)
"Go and synergize no more" (6/9/2006)
"There's no battle, Morgan!" (6/28/2006)
"Does Julia Gillard know subjects from objects?" (12/19/2006)
"Less than three years: a policy revision" (1/04/2007)
"Stupid wild over-the-top anti-linguist rant" (1/19/2007)
"I have different determiner constraints so you're awful" (2/5/2007)
"If you can possibly do without them they must be banned" (2/10/2007)

Posted by Mark Liberman at February 23, 2007 05:27 PM