March 29, 2008

The values of "correct grammar"

In response to yesterday's post "James Kilpatrick, linguistic socialist", Stephen Jones writes:

I hate to have to come to Kilpatrick's defense again but his article is actually rather good. He makes two excellent points; that 'correct grammar' allows communication between people who speak different dialects, and that there must be some kind of agreed set of grammatical rules if we are to be able to interpret written laws and regulations.

Many people believe that stipulation of shared linguistic norms is essential to communication, or at least improves the efficiency and accuracy of communication. But on examination, this idea is transparent nonsense. Let me illustrate.

I'm one of the judges in the 2008 Tournament of Books at The Morning News, and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Díaz, has made it to the final round. Chapter One ("GhettoNerd at the End of the World, 1974-1987") starts like this:

Our hero was not one of those Dominican cats everybody's always going on about -- he wasn't no home-run hitter or a fly bachatero, not a playboy with a million hots on his jock.

This sentence contains an instance of negative concord, a non-standard grammatical feature that isn't part of my dialect of English. But this doesn't cause me any trouble -- it wouldn't have been any easier for me to understand the sentence if Díaz had chosen to write "wasn't a home-run hitter" instead of "wasn't no home-run hitter".

The same sentence also includes several non-standard words or phrases. Cats is an antique piece of hipster slang; fly is slightly more recent; bachatero I didn't know, but it seems to mean a singer of bachatas, a kind of Dominican popular music; hots on his jock I can more or less guess. I wouldn't use any of these, and didn't even know some of them, but Díaz got his idea across, and the non-standard lexical choices are part of what he communicates.

Oscar Wao is a terrific book, but of course I could have chosen Huckleberry Finn, an even better book that's even denser with "incorrect grammar" and non-standard word usage:

You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain't no matter.

Here's a final example, of a very different kind. Seth Roberts is visiting Penn to give a talk, and on Thursday I had him over for dinner with 15 or 20 students in Ware College House, where I'm faculty master. After dinner we traded favorite-books recommendations for a while, and I suggested Gibbon's Decline and Fall. As a result, I took it off the shelf and read myself to sleep with Chapter XXVI (365-395 A.D.), "Manners of the Pastoral Nations", which reminded me of how much I like Gibbon.

But it also reminded me of the changes in English style and usage since 1776. Consider the following sentence, discussing the Roman world's reaction to the great earthquake and tidal wave "in the second year of the reign of Valentinian and Valens":

They recollected the preceding earthquakes, which had subverted the cities of Palestine and Bithynia; they considered these alarming strokes as the prelude only of still more dreadful calamities, and their fearful vanity was disposed to confound the symptoms of a declining empire and a sinking world.

No one writes like Gibbon now. This may be our loss, but it's also our reality. Along with the rhetorical differences, there are some changes in grammar and usage. We no longer use subvert in the OED's sense 1, "to overthrow, raze to the ground (a town or city, a structure, edifice)". We no longer put only after the word it limits ("the prelude only of still more dreadful calamities"), except in fixed phrases like "by appointment only".

But these differences don't get between Gibbon and me to any significant extent. I wouldn't enjoy him more, or understand him better, if someone modernized his language.

Obviously, reader and writer must share linguistic norms to some extent. I can't read the Kalevala, much as I might like to, because I don't know enough Finnish. But it's just plain silly to insist that writing must conform to James Kilpatrick's grammatical stipulations in order for Anglophone readers to be able to understand it properly.

What about Stephen's second point, that "there must be some kind of agreed set of grammatical rules if we are to be able to interpret written laws and regulations"? The trick here, as discussed in the post that Stephen is responding to, is what "agreed" means. Kilpatrick believes, or at least asserts, that the route to linguistic clarity is grammatical stipulation by self-appointed experts. I think this is naive and empirically false. Linguistic norms are examples of what Hayek called "spontaneous order", arguing against the "highly influential schools of thought which have wholly succumbed to the belief that all rules or laws must have been invented or explicitly agreed upon by somebody".

Stephen continues:

Also his point that we have 'many different vocabularies' and that the most important thing is to consider the target audience ('Know thy reader') is excellent advice.

I agree.

As I said before, Kilpatrick's problem is that he picked up his theory at a garage sale run by dysfunctional schizophrenics. What he actually recommends in practice is usually spot on.

I disagree with both points. Kilpatrick picked up his theory from the proud and dominant intellectual tradition of rationalist constructivism. It may be dysfunctional, especially as applied to language, but it ain't no garage sale.

And Kilpatrick writes beautifully, but his practical recommendations are a capricious and unpredictable mixture of sensible advice and idiosyncratic peeves.

Posted by Mark Liberman at March 29, 2008 09:22 AM