Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Classes of Grammarians

This is probably a hopelessly impossible task, but I will attempt to describe classes of grammarians, or types of attitudes toward grammar usage.

The first category is the SNOOT. This is a person who fervently believes that there is a right way to use language and a wrong way, and that the difference is important. The concept is discussed in great detail in a Harper's magazine article, which can be found at

This a very long and thoughtful article, and it is refreshing in this era of anything goes relativity that someone takes the effort to analyze this issue so thoroughly. Rather than attempting any analysis of it, I will simply refer the interested reader to the article itself.

I have an Internet friend who cheerfully admits he is a SNOOT, and writes that:
"I am not only a prescriptive grammarian but a lover of fine language and of languages generally.  English for me is not only a medium of ommunication but an art form, even in everyday use, so much so that I alienate almost everyone I come in contact with through written media."

Rather than belaboring the SNOOT category, I will move on to the second one. This is the person who acknowledges that language evolves, but will not accept the new usage until the evolution is complete.

Judge Judy probably falls in this category (if not the SNOOT one), as indicated by her recent immediate and sharp rebuke of a litigant who said "Me and my friend", to which she responded "My friend and I".

The third category is the person who wants to help the language evolve. Perhaps my older son falls in this category, based on his advocacy of using "they" as a singular pronoun.

The fourth and last category is the person who doesn't think language use matters at all. This is the sort of person who also doesn't think manners and rules of courtesy matter either, the sort of person who doesn't care that rules of courtesy require that a man wait for a woman to extend her hand in greeting, so that she has the option of ignoring him if she wants to.

Edwin Newman's 1974 book "Strictly Speaking" places him in the first category. Newman writes:

"Automatic recall should be visited on anyone on the public payroll who says viable. Something drastic is needed, for while language--the poor state of language in the U.S.--may not be at the heart of our problems, it isn't divorced from them either. It is at least conceivable that our politics would be improved if our English were, and so would other parts of our national life. If we were more careful about what we say, and how, we might be more critical and less gullible. Those for whom words have lost their value are likely to find that ideas have also lost their value. Maybe some people discipline themselves in one and not in the other, but they must be rare."

On the other hand, in Barbara Wallraff's book "Word Court", which I picked up over the holidays at the Elliott Bay Book Company in Portland, surely the best bookstore in the world, the author endorses a category 2 approach:

"Standard English is not something handed down from on high. It may seem disingenuous for someone who calls herself judge of Word Court to say that, and yet I do not just make up my answers, any more than a real judge rules according to whim. Whenever I can, I rely on precedent and consensus....

Everyone who chooses to use standard English must make an endless series of decisions about the language, and thereby has a say in how it develops. If people habitually use contact as a transitive verb--as in 'I hope you will contact me'--the usage becomes a part of standard English (and, in fact, it has done so). If people insist on calling the establishment where they go to wash their clothes a laundromat, then whether the creators of the Laundromat launderette franchise like it or not, the generic meaning becomes standard English (it, too, has done so). If everyone stops saying forsooth, the word is sure to be marked 'archaic' in dictionaries (this day has not yet come)."

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