February 27, 2007

The social psychology of linguistic naming and shaming

There's something stirring in the online New Media sections of the world's newspapers. At the New York Times, Dick Cavett's inaugural blog post "It's only language" now has 761 comments. And across the Atlantic, on the Telegraph's web site, readers have devoted more than 1,270 comments to (as Christopher Howse put it yesterday)

... naming and shaming some of the most irritating phrases to have insinuated themselves into the English language.
("What is the most annoying phrase in the English language?", 2/23/2007)

Looking around quickly on the web sites of those two newspapers, I don't see any non-linguistic discussions that are generating as many comments as these are. For example, on the Telegraph Speakers' Corner site, "Is the Anglican Church obsessed with sex?" has gotten 44 responses; "Who were the real winners and losers at the Oscars?" has gotten 35; "Should Prince Harry be sent to Iraq?" has gotten 205; "What would a world without America be like?" has gotten 232. Since I haven't done a systematic survey, let's just say that the reader interest in linguistic matters is strikingly large.

Of course, the theme of this flood of linguistic interest is mostly griping. Some of the items in this gripefest just list words, phrases, pronunciations or structures that readers find annoying; but in many cases, a guilty group is also named: politicians, rugby commentators, Americans, Californians, BBC announcers, South Africans, the youth of today, estate agents, footballers, the military, management, and train attendants, among others. Contributions often cite or imply one of a few standard reasons for being annoyed: overuse, redundancy, inconsistency, novelty, and failure to observe an allegedly traditional distinction.

There's a topic here for a social psychologist or a sociologist, I think. I'm neither one, but here's how it looks to me.

Social annoyance and public griping reinforce one another.

By social annoyance I mean a distaste for the way someone looks or acts that sees its object as an instance of a type. Someone's appearance or behavior gets under your skin, and it's not just that particular person, it's the whole class of people who look like that or act like that. And usually it's not just a random set of people, it's kids today, or jocks, or German tourists, or 30-something suburban women in Hummers, or those people who hang out with so-and-so. You associate the irritant with some salient combination of social features: race, ethnicity, age, sex, class, location, occupation, clique.

By public griping I mean the process of sharing your annoyance with a sympathetic group. You might trade anecdotes around the coffee machine or the dinner table, or write a letter to the editor. People enjoy listening in groups to skillful expressions of social annoyance, and so stand-up comedians do a lot of this. Cartoons and newspaper columns often express similar feelings, and allow you to join in by putting a clipping or printout up on your refrigerator or your office door. These days, you might send a copy to your friends by email, or chime in on your weblog.

In some places and times, linguists might have been presiding over the speech and language sessions of this ritual reinforcement of group identity. But these days, our reaction is generally to observe that most of the gripes are arbitrary and many of the explanations are false. For example, one of the hundreds of word-usage gripes on the Telegraph's site is:

Our house was robbed instead of burgled.
Only people can be robbed.

Sez who? Not the OED, which gives sense 3.a. as "To plunder, pillage, rifle (a place, house, etc.)" and cites examples from 1230 forwards that include Shakespeare and Macaulay:

c1230 Hali Meid. 15 Wes helle irobbed, & heuene beð ifulled.
1599 SHAKES. Hen. V, III. vi. 106 One that is like to be executed for robbing a Church.
1855 MACAULAY Hist. Eng. xii. III. 221 In the country his house was robbed.

Another gripe, typical of the type that claims logic as its basis:

One in particular is
As in at about 1030 pm
It is surely either
at 1030 pm or about 1030 pm.
How can it be both at the same time.

But at about is listed in the OED as a sequence of prepositions meaning "at approximately" -- a useful and not intrinsically inconsistent concept -- with citations from eminent authors over the centuries:

a1882 TROLLOPE Autobiogr. (1883) I. ix. 214, I have been paid at about that rate.
1915 V. WOOLF Voyage Out iii. 37 At about that hour he reappeared.
1929 D. H. LAWRENCE Paintings sig. B1r, At about the time of our Elizabethans.
1945 E. WAUGH Bridesh. Rev. II. v. 272 My divorce case..was due to be heard at about the same time.

We can take it back a bit further with a quotation from Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey (1818):

At about half past twelve, a remarkably loud rap drew her in haste to the window, and scarcely had she time to inform Catherine of there being two open carriages at the door, in the first only a servant, her brother driving Miss Thorpe in the second, before John Thorpe came running.

This kind of gripe-debunking could go on for a long time, but it's really beside the point.

Linguistic sins, real or imaginary, are not really what's driving this process. And the original emotion of irritation, though sometimes expressed in colorful displays of (mock?) disgust and anger, is also secondary, I think. The real key is the public ritual that Christopher Howse called "naming and shaming", which helps the group to converge on a set of norms. (While giving everyone a good deal of pleasure along the way, apparently.)

As we gripe-debunkers relentlessly demonstrate, these aren't the usual norms of linguistic usage. They're not even the norms of the standard language or the norms of elite users. These days, those accused of offending against these odd, artificial norms are as likely to be high-status people -- politicians, business managers, journalists -- as members of (linguistically) lower-status groups -- blacks, young people, Americans, athletes.

Often there's a political dimension, though it's rarely as explicit and hostile as it is in this example from the Telegraph:

The current expression which causes great irritation is "Carbon Footprint". Should anyone of those namby pamby, nerdy, mummy's boys (known as greens) utter that expression in my presence it would give me great pleasure to plant a large Carbon bunch of fives up his mandibles. (if you will forgive an earlier expression)

While social annoyance is sometimes an original emotion, public griping reinforces it and in many cases creates it out of nothing. This is especially true for the linguistic forms of this process. Sentence-initial however, for example, annoys many people who would never have noticed it if they hadn't been trained to do so by the public griping about this alleged abuse that Will Strunk started a hundred years ago. (See "The evolution of disornamentation", 2/21/2005; "Fossilized prejudices about 'however'", 2/22/2005, "If they do it too much, they should be told not to do it at all",10/31/2006 for details.)

Arnold Zwicky has observed ("Tolerating variation, or not", 2/24/2007),

I'm often puzzled why some usages get such opprobrium (in the face of the actual practice of good writers) while others go unnoticed and uncommented on.  Recently, I've been looking at preposition + of (out/outside/inside/alongside/off of) versus plain preposition (I intend to post on this eventually); many usage advisers are hostile to the versions with of: the of is said to be "superfluous" (Omit Needless Words!); the usage is (in most cases, incorrectly) labeled "colloquial", or even "non-standard"; it's believed to be more recent than the alternative (the of has been, inexplicably, added); and it's less frequent than the alternative.  Meanwhile, nobody seems to pay any attention to except for vs. plain except ("Nobody talked, except (for) Kim"), though you could try to mount a case against this for similar to the case against of.

Once a proscription -- even a silly one, like Dryden's Rule, banning stranded prepositions -- is in the marketplace, it tends to persist.  But where do the proscriptions come from?  Here, there's an enormous amount of randomness: somebody in the usage community happens to notice something that offends him (it's almost always a man) in some way -- often because he views it as colloquial or innovative or regional or used by the wrong sort of people, occasionally because that's not the way you do things in Latin -- and writes or teaches about it.  We then end up with a collection of personal quirks and accidents of history, a big grab-bag of assorted stuff.  Speaker-oriented hopefully gets excoriated, while speaker-oriented frankly and so on get a free pass.  Sentence-initial linking however is judged to be poor style, while sentence-initial linking consequently and so on escape the red pencil.  I could go on like this for quite some time.

There's has always been a sort of black market in populist usage peeves. Thus Arnold has shown elsewhere ("However, ..." 11/1/2206) that the "No Initial Coordinators" rule (NIC) has become widely accepted and taught without even the crankiest and most idiosyncratic of language mavens ever having preached it:

Mark notes that the AHD note for and rejects NIC out of hand, and he provides a smorgasbord of cites (and statistics) from reputable authors.  Similarly MWDEU.  Paul Brians, collector of common errors in English, labels sentence-initial coordinators a "non-error".  Bryan Garner denies, all over the place, that NIC has any validity.  Even the curmudgeonly Robert Hartwell Fiske tells his readers that there's absolutely nothing wrong with sentence-initial coordinators.  A point of usage and style on which Liberman and I and the AHD and the MWDEU stand together with Brians and Garner and Fiske (and dozens of other advice writers) is, truly, not a disputed point.  NIC is crap.

But still it lives on, as what I've called a zombie rule.  It's been lurking in the grammatical shadows for some time -- at least a hundred years, to judge from MWDEU.  Hardly any usage manual subscribes to it, but it is, apparently, widely taught in schools, at least in the U.S., with the result that educated people tend to be nagged by a feeling that there is something bad about sentence-initial and (and but and so).  (It might well be that this sense of unease rises with level of education.  Someone should look at this possibility.) 

The internet has made it possible for this populist ferment to emerge in widely-read group gripe sessions, like the one organized and summarized on the Telegraph's site by Christopher Howse, or the flood of comments on Dick Cavett's first NYT blog post, or the many web forums where usage debates have been taking place for some time.

Will this result in an explosion of pet peeves enshrined as artificial linguistic norms, an epidemic of what I once called the "infectious form of obsessive-compulsive disorder" afflicting some sectors of the usage industry? Or will lowering barriers to entry, and flooding the market with usage gripes, cause the whole industry to crash? Or will language mavens and their audience find some unanticipated new equilibrium?

Although people have been worried about correct speech for thousands of years, it's apparently the status anxieties of modern societies that create the market for usage advice in which artificial "rules" can spring up and spread, independent of the genuine norms of speaking and writing. But the cycle of social annoyance and public griping seems much older and more fundamental. As the internet turns up the gain on this paleolithic social feedback loop, will something new arise?

[More commentary in blog posts at the Telegraph by Christopher Howse:

"The clumsy phrases you basically, like, hate", 2/25/2007
"Modern English abusage", 2/26/2007)

Posted by Mark Liberman at February 27, 2007 07:14 AM