February 20, 2004

The pleasures of linguistic foolishness

There is surely more nonsense written about language than about any other topic. A right-thinking person is daily puzzled, annoyed or even infuriated by ignorant assertions about the proper use of words, incoherent prescriptions for good writing, overblown or misleading interpretations of animals' abilities, stunningly silly historical theories, bizarre clinical hypotheses, and an inexhaustible variety of other confident but false claims.

As an alternative to tranquilizers, a dose of humility can help us bear the load: everybody makes mistakes. Or we can go the other way, and take the attitude of H.L. Mencken's essay On Being an American, which ends:

... here, more than anywhere else that I know of or have heard of, the daily panorama of human existence, of private and communal folly--the unending procession of governmental extortions and chicaneries, of commercial brigandages, and throat-slittings, of theological buffooneries, of aesthetic ribaldries, of legal swindles and harlotries, of miscellaneous rogueries, villainies, imbecilities, grotesqueries, and extravagances--is so inordinately gross and preposterous, so perfectly brought up to the highest conceivable amperage, so steadily enriched with an almost fabulous daring and originality, that only the man who was born with a petrified diaphragm can fail to laugh himself to sleep every night, and to awake every morning with all the eager, unflagging expectation of a Sunday-school superintendent touring the Paris peep-shows.

By the way, the quoted passage is typical of Mencken in containing 16% adjectives, twice the norm for academic prose. I'd like to have heard Mencken discuss this issue with his contemporary Strunk.

Posted by Mark Liberman at February 20, 2004 08:14 AM