March 15, 2007

An opportunity missed

A couple of weeks ago, I noted that the Washington Post had opened up an abusage forum, under the heading "wordplay". One puzzling thing: the Telegraph's recent forum for linguistic naming and shaming collected thousands of linguistic complaints (2993 as of this morning); and Dick Cavett's compendium of kvetches at the NYT got 764 comments, despite being behind the Times Select wall; but the WaPo's group gripe was cut off after only three readers had sedately unburdened their souls. Today (3/15/2007) "wordplay" is back, sort of:

We cautioned you last week that Wordplay would have a limited run before this space returns to subjects more local than debate over English usage. Nevertheless, it has been fun to see the passion with which an astonishing number of you embrace the subject. Even more delightful is that every one of you thinks that you're absolutely correct and surrounded by illiterates.

Out of that "astonishing number" of responses, they chose only four examples, and apparently slashed those selections mercilessly. Jay Cummings, one of the chosen few, explained in email to me:

They went and published my letter in the column, or rather, fragments of it. I should have tried to word it better, knowing that length would be important. Better yet, I should have restrained myself and not have written, or at least added "not for publication". As it was, editing it "for length" made me sound as dogmatic and silly as everyone else sounds. Which leads me to suppose, of course, that everyone else isn't quite as silly as they appear in the sliced and diced versions. I guess making people seem silly fits the purposes of the writers.

Seeing [some of] my words in print makes me appreciate more how gutsy it is of you to publish daily. Of course, you and the other contributors write better than I do. Anyway, thanks for doing it.

It didn't take long, as I predicted, for someone to say that "on line", as New Yorkers say it, is wrong. That item appears in the same column.

I guess that this WaPo feature is constrained by the traditional limitations of print.

But let's look at the situation in a larger frame. Newspapers are worried about their future, as readers desert them for other media. Judging by these recent examples, English usage gets 10 or 100 times more reader participation than just about any other topic. So the WaPo's response to this outpouring of interest is the obvious one -- shut it down! You certainly wouldn't want those pesky readers cluttering the place up with their delightful passions.

The question here is not whether the people who complain about usage are right or wrong on the linguistic facts -- they're often wrong, as we spend far too much time pointing out. Nor am I endorsing the "pride and prejudice" that often underlies such complaints, though I think that the role of explicit discussion in establishing and maintaining (cultural attitudes about) linguistic norms deserves careful and respectful study. But facts aside, and ideology aside, our culture is failing the millions of people who are passionately interested in speech and language. What the schools give them is less and less and worse and worse. What the mass media and the big-time publishers give them is mostly cranky, ignorant and careless. And when a social space opens up for them, by accident, its owners seems to be suprised and confused about what to do.

The WaPo's treatment of the "wordplay" feature has been pathetic. The NYT response was a bit better, but accidentally so, it seems -- Dick Cavett was invited to do a few blog entries, and chose to do one on usage, and got hundreds of responses, and that seems to be the end of it. The Telegraph has been the most open and interested -- Christopher Howse and Ceri Radford have kept the discussion going with a succession of blog entries there, and it'll be interesting to see how things develop there.

Something seems to be missing from our culture. Not a single, simple thing, but a whole dimension of intellectual life.

[The intensity of readers' interest in usage is not a new phenomenon. Mark Halpern's article "The War that Never Ends" (The Atlantic, March 1997), opens with this observation:

FOURTEEN years ago Geoffrey Nunberg, a professor of linguistics at Stanford, published in this magazine a piece called "The Decline of Grammar," which dealt with the conflict between the judgmental and nonjudgmental approaches to questions of correctness in language usage -- the war between the prescriptivists and the descriptivists. His article drew one of the greatest volumes of reader response that the editors of The Atlantic Monthly had seen in years.


Posted by Mark Liberman at March 15, 2007 11:39 AM