The language wars date from the beginning of language—the beginning, one suspects, of every language. A language is invented, new words added, a grammar devised, an approved syntax established, and in one of countless possible ways it proves inadequate, opponents gather, snipers fire verbal shots, polemical grenades are flung, canons lined up, and war is underway. The reigning rule of language is change, endless bloody change; it was forever thus, and always will be. Case—far from closed—permanently open.
In his richly informative book Henry Hitchings chronicles the language wars of English, its continuous skirmishes, its controversies, its often rancorous disputes. The Language Wars is impressively comprehensive, its author immensely knowledgeable. He takes up the subjects of spelling, grammar, punctuation, pronunciation, metaphor, regional speech, jargon, the influence on language of the internet, and profanity, both lyrical and gross. One cannot but admire his learning and high spirits as he makes his way through material that in a less deft hand would have drooped into pedantry or become inflamed with bad temper.
In writing about language one must prove that one can oneself manipulate language. Hitchings passes this test. His prose is lucid, nicely dappled with irony, and if not elegant then attractively virile. The only complaint I have against his prose style is that he tends to overuse the word "intriguing," and uses it to mean interesting, sometimes fascinating, thereby ignoring what for me is the word's root sense of making secret plans to do something illicit or harmful to someone. Spies have traditionally been thought to be intriguing, not authors of books on grammar and spelling. Many contemporary dictionaries approve Hitchings's use of the word, often these days according it primary position in their numerical list of definitions. But dictionaries, as we know, are cowardly institutions, which tend to go along with the changed meaning of words, and hence are not to be trusted.
My argument against Hitchings's use of intriguing is on two grounds: First, it is an act of verbicide, for if more and more people use the word as he does, its older, more specific meaning will soon pass out of existence, which would be both a loss and a pity. After all, there is no other word for the older meaning of intriguing, whereas interesting or fascinating will always cover the case in the sense that Mr. Hitchings and so many others now use the word. Second, people who use the word intriguing wish to be taken as not merely interested or fascinated by phenomena but—you should pardon the expression—intrigued by them; they tend through its use to suggest that they are themselves interesting or fascinating, intriguing, if you will, though I won't.
I have deliberately incited this small skirmish to convey that people are nutty about language, and to establish that I am, proudly, among those who are. We take pride in our own use of words, and judge others by theirs, sometimes admiringly, more often to their detriment. I once heard a woman disqualify another, or so she thought, by remarking that she was one of those people who habitually misuse "hopefully." I have myself in recent years grown tired of hearing people describe life, their job, their marriage, even cancer as "a journey." If it is, how come so few first-class tickets are dispensed? "As soon as one begins to analyze the idea of what is correct and what incorrect [in language]," Hitchings writes, "one sees how entangled it is with notions of what's appropriate, felicitous, effective, useful and socially acceptable."
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The Language Wars does not take up the question of intriguing, though it does take up hopefully, expert, benchmark, whatever, and many other words about which people contend. Hitchings himself, alas, uses input, feedback, process, proactive, supportive, and seminal. I find that seminal, a word used chiefly by academics to overpraise one another, tends vastly to underrate the power of semen. I'm fairly certain, not at all by the way, that Hitchings would not approve my alas.
The parade of warriors in the English language wars all make an appearance in Hitchings's book. Among them have been Ben Jonson, Daniel Defoe, John Dryden, Jonathan Swift, Thomas Hobbes, Joseph Priestley, John Locke, Samuel Johnson, Richard Steele, Joseph Addison, Noah Webster, William Cobbett, William Hazlitt, George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, H.W. Fowler, H.L. Mencken, Kingsley Amis, and Ferdinand de Saussure. Some of these figures line up in the prescriptivist (or tradition-minded) and others in the descriptivist (or change-accepting) trenches. I use the metaphor trenches because the language wars resemble nothing so much as World War I in having lots of charges back and forth but no clear victor.
Eighteenth-century England, Hitchings maintains, was the first time that a noticeable slippage in the use of English was felt among the educated classes. At this time the battle between the prescriptivists and descriptivists was joined. Hitchings neatly formulates the essential difference between the two sides. The prescriptivists "believed that language could be remodelled, or at least regularized; they claimed that reason and logic would enable them to achieve this." The descriptivists, on the other hand, "saw language as a complicated jungle of habits that it would be impossible to trim into shape," and thus was perhaps best left to grow slightly wild, rather like an English garden.
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You cannot always tell the players without a scorecard. Most people would assume that Samuel Johnson, given his famous peremptoriness, would be a prescriptivist. According to Hitchings, who wrote Defining the World (2005), an excellent book on the making of Johnson's Dictionary, he wasn't—at least not straight out. Johnson began as a prescriptivist, or perhaps more of a proscriptivist, citing many words as "low" or "cant" or "barbarous." His original plan was to be a lawgiver: to "embalm the language," as Hitchings writes, "yet by the time he completed it [the Dictionary] he was conscious of the necessary mutability of English; he had also come to recognize the need for lexicography to say how things are rather than to specify how they ought to be."
Two key names likely to be unknown to amateurs in this landmine-strewn field—they were hitherto unknown to me—are Robert Lowth (1710-87) and Lindley Murray (1745-1826). A bishop, a Professor of Poetry at Oxford, a Fellow of the Royal Society, Lowth published a Short Introduction to English Grammar (1762) based roughly on Latin rules. Lowth's book, Hitchings reports, was in use in Anglophone classrooms as recently as 100 years ago. In it Lowth adjudicated upon the use of shall and will, would and should, the crime of ending sentences with prepositions, the duration implied by marks of punctuation, and other such matters that since their invention have driven schoolchildren comatose with boredom. Lowth enjoyed finding errors, grammatical and semantical, in famous authors, Shakespeare notably among them.
"The Short Introduction," Hitchings notes, "represents the general condition of English grammars up until the twentieth century: there is a reluctance to wrestle with difficult questions, an emphasis on using literature to illustrate aspects of language, an affection for example and learnable points rather than larger rational procedures, an inherited set of labels that are variably used, and a rarely explored awareness that there is something wrong with all of this." Hitchings will from time to time toss up a curveball sentence, whose surprising final clauses get one's attention as it pops resounding into the catcher's mitt.
Unlike Robert Lowth, who had a nice sense of humor, Lindley Murray brought the point-of-view of the moralist into the language wars. An American who took up residence in England, he was the author of the English Grammar (1795), which represents the ne plus ultra of conservatism in this realm. Everything for Murray needed to be buttoned up, locked down, iron certain. His "doctrine," writes Hitchings, "was that the rules of usage should not allow choice." He did not think that children deserved the relative pronoun who, not yet being fully sentient beings. He could write: "Sentences, in general, should neither be very long, nor very short," which leaves one to wonder if they should not also be very medium. He felt a strong link, as Hitchings writes, "between sound grammar and virtue, and...between mistakes and vice," and even imagined "a connection between proper syntax and moral rectitude."
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Along with physical appearance, language is one of the primary ways we have of taking one another's measure, and as such measures go it is not entirely an inferior one. A person's speech is often a strong clue to his region and his social class, his choice of vocabulary to his education and point of view. My not having written that last sentence "A person's speech is often a strong clue to his or her social class, his or her vocabulary to his or her education or point of view" offers clues to my own disposition, even my politics, in preferring a smoothly rhythmical sentence over a politically correct one.
As an argument for why language not only changes but needs to change, Hitchings offers the example of the word everyone, a word that takes a singular pronoun, as in "Everyone is certain that he is correct." The rise of female sensitivities in these matters has now forced one to write "Everyone is certain that he or she is correct," or to alternate between "he" and "she" in the sentences that follow, or to lapse into the odious s/he. Why not, then, drop the rule, and where everyone is used revert to the plural pronouns they, them, their? The precedent for doing so is found in the works of great writers; Shakespeare, Fielding, Swift, Johnson, Byron, Ruskin, George Eliot, and Lewis Carroll, as Hitchings points out, availed themselves of plural pronouns in this connection. "Some usages," he writes, "regarded as illiterate are really acts of discretion," and this strikes me as one of them.
Usually it is the prescriptivists who grow moralistic about language, but Henry Hitchings frequently takes out his own moral trumpet in The Language Wars in the hope of blowing away the strict prescriptions he contemns. He is not above imputing the motive behind prescriptivist thought to fear, finding "a sense of life's encroaching chaos and myriad uncertainties" expressed in their outrage at the changes that language naturally undergoes. He can also shift into high dudgeon, as when he accuses prescriptivists, this time under the name of "purists," of attempting "to repel lexical invasions," adding that "it's a repression of life itself. For now, as for all the recorded past, languages are able to cross-pollinate, and as they do so the achievements, visions, philosophies and memories of different cultures interfuse, enriching our expressive resources and making our experience more intricate." Might Hitchings be a multiculturalist in descriptivist's clothing? Or does one position lead naturally, even inexorably, into the other?
That language has political content is a point Hitchings makes repeatedly. Orwell made the same point earlier and more forcibly in his famous essay "Politics and the English Language." (You might want to check the difference between forcibly and forcefully; you will find, I believe, that my using the former suggests I am—within elegant limits, you understand—a prescriptivist in reasonable man's clothing.) Hitchings cites those who are strict in their insistence on the enforcement of grammatical rules, for example, as liking "the idea of grammar because they see in its structures a model of how they would like society to be—organized and orderly, governed by rules and a strict hierarchy."
A less complimentary picture of a descriptivist is that of a man who comes in with his hands up. Claiming to grasp that the essential point about language is that it changes, relentlessly, he thinks it a waste of time to fight change. He is not alarmed when old meanings or usages or rules are jettisoned. (Hitchings, for example, believes that, given the quick communication required by texting and internet writing the days of the apostrophe and the semi-colon may be numbered; one might throw in the hyphen along with them. Farewell, old pals.) The descriptivist goes with the flow, thinks of language as existing in an ecosystem. The descriptivist view is the linguistic equivalent of the free marketeer; as the invisible hand of the market will in the end cause all things to work out for the best for the free marketeer, so the invisible lexicographer will turn the same trick for language for the descriptivist.
A descriptivist Henry Hitchings indubitably is, but he is not an uncritical one. He views political correctness, for example, as an attempt to legislate language usage—in most contemporary universities it is now all but the law—and feels that its use has no more point than "allow[ing] us to applaud our own sensitivity while evading the redress of real evils."
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Is there an honorable position between that of the prescriptivists and the descriptivists? There is, and you will be shocked to learn that that position is my own. The position entails the tacit agreement that language is mutable, but reserves the right to loathe certain changes, however widely accepted they may be.
In his Studies in Words, C.S. Lewis remarks on our "responsibility to the language," and adds that "it is unnecessary defeatism to believe that we can do nothing" about language change. Lewis affirms that "language which can with the greatest ease make the finest and most numerous distinctions of meaning is the best." The question for Lewis is always does a new word add to the richness of the language or does it diminish it. He also cautions his readers to be on the qui vive for words that suggest "a promise to pay which is never going to be kept," which applies to three-quarters of the language of psychology and fully half that of contemporary social science.
Inspired by Lewis, I am for putting a 20-year moratorium on the use of the inflationary word icon to describe anything other than a small religious painting. Nothing to be done about it, I realize, but it is worth noting that the perhaps perfunctory phrase "You are welcome" has now been replaced with "No problem," which does not seem a notable advance in elegance or manners. I'm for banishing the word workshop—which is also available as a verb—to describe what is little more than a classroom discussion of undergraduate poems or stories; "workshop" used in this sense, Kingsley Amis once remarked, implies all that has gone wrong with the world since World War II. Allowing the word issue to stand in for problem—"I have issues with that"—is as pure a case of verbicide as I know: a useful word, issue, distinctly different in meaning from problem, describing a matter still in the flux of controversy in a way that no other word does. Impact and focus deserve a long rest from overuse, and process is surely one of those words that never keeps its promise. Perhaps, too, the time has come to call a halt to people describing people as "highly literate," given that literate means no more than that one can read and write; what they really mean, presumably, when they say literate is "literary" or possibly "cultivated," which is not at all near the same thing.Or consider the word disinterested, with its core meaning of impartiality or above personal interest, which has now all but melted into the condition of a pathetic synonym for uninterested. If we lose disinterested do we not also lose the grand ideal that it represents? I fear we may already have done so, at least insofar as I find it impossible at present to name a single disinterested figure on the stage of world politics. Ideas Have Consequences is the title of a once famous book, but words, being the substance out of which ideas are composed, turn out to have even greater consequences.