March 29, 2008

Modesty, hod-carrying, everything but relevance

Interesting to see my friends Mark Liberman and Stephen Jones arguing about whether James Kilpatrick's recent article makes good points. I was already planning to comment on my own reaction to the article: I was astounded by its sheer rambling emptiness; it was far worse than I was expecting.

Kilpatrick had a very clear mandate: he had been asked Why do we study grammar? by a first-year high school student in Oregon named Kathryn. Her question does need an answer. Kilpatrick was apparently intending to provide one. But instead he just sort of staggers about for six hundred words and then falls over and stops. Neither Mark nor Stephen has given you a proper sense of how bad the article is.

Kilpatrick's first point is that using proper grammar is like not driving into downtown Portland wearing a polka-dot bikini. (I swear I am not making this up.) The girl who wore the itsy-bitsy teeny-weeny yellow polka dot bikini in the song (it was a hit back in 1960; Kilpatrick was apparently 40 by then, and should not have even been listening to such songs) was embarrassed at having to come out of the water. Grammar is modesty, Kathryn. Cover your midriff.

He then moves to some condescending comments about the working-class speech of an imagined "hod carrier" who "don't speak no good English" but "pays the rent and, you know, it's like he treats his wife real good". He concedes that the hod carrier might do a good job of work, but... I don't know. I cannot see what that paragraph is supposed to be driving at. It goes nowhere as far as the topic of motivating grammatical study is concerned.

Next he says that the point of grammar is "to avoid being misunderstood", and drifts from there into what seems a glaringly irrelevant remark about vocabulary size ("a hundred thousand words for everyday use and half a million more for special occasions"), and tries to make it relevant by declaring that "we can put these riches to work" with grammar. Otherwise will be unable to write precise laws, persuasive sermons, or clear doll's house assembly instructions. (By the way, everything I've assembled recently has instructions that are entirely pictorial. So much for grammar.) This is the misguided view that Mark convincingly calls "transparent nonsense". It's about getting a message across effectively, and not about studying grammar.

Struggling to get back to his theme, Kilpatrick declares (getting somewhat desperate) that one reason for studying grammar is that "it is surely more fun than algebra." Apparently "once you've done one quadratic equation, you've done them all" (!). But drift sets in again, leading him to remark that "there are few ironclad 'rules' of English composition" — which apparently means there isn't much to study, undercutting his whole point.

His remaining statements are these: First, that he is not a snob, he is merely practical (this is about himself rather than grammatical study).

Second, that English grammar "has its awkward patches" but nonetheless "is a language of remarkably good order" (I do not see what these impressionistic value judgments have to do with his topic).

Third, that "irregular verbs have a pattern of irregularity" and this is exemplified by comparing Kathryn has and Kathryn had (they provide "a perfect, or at least a past perfect example", he says, bafflingly).

And fourth, in a concluding explosion of anglophone triumphalism, that "English is the greatest language ever devised for communicating thought" — the remark that Mark commented on originally, which has nothing to do with why we might or should study grammar.

And there, having hit the 600-word point without having made a single sensible remark about why we study grammar, he simply stops.

Steve says the article "is actually rather good", and even Mark says "Kilpatrick writes beautifully"; but I demur. I think Kilpatrick's little piece may be the worst piece of writing about language that I've ever seen. And the question it starts with — why we study grammar — remains to be addressed. I may have to tackle the question myself one day, because James Kilpatrick clearly has nothing to say about it.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at March 29, 2008 01:45 PM