Language Mavens

In the last couple of weeks I’ve been making a concerted effort to finish The Language Instinct. It’s not the kind of book I can read casually. I often have to read sections multiple times, and with each chapter being an essay around a single topic it’s necessary to read regularly to keep the local and overall structures clear in my brain.

Completely worth the effort. It’s a fascinating journey through the workings of language, and how our brains come pre-wired to understand complex rules from basic structures that apply to all languages. He goes on to explain how natural selection may have crafted such an ability, and details the first understandings of how it may be built into the brain. I’d love to read a second edition, as I suspect much has been discovered in the thirteen years since its publication12.

But I’ve just hit the penultimate chapter, where Steven Pinker takes time out to lay into the ‘English teachers, essayists, columnists and pundits’ (amongst others) who try to legislate ‘correct English’. It’s glorious. He calls them the ‘language mavens’: those who tell us not to split infinitives or end sentences with prepositions, and despair over the decline of the language in teenage slang, grammatical errors in adverts, etc.

This chapter was a revelation, but not because of any schadenfreude. I’ve been that person. It turns out that many of the prescriptive rules I’ve been known to try and impose ‘make no sense on any level’:

For as long as they have existed, speakers have flouted them, spawning identical plaints about the imminent decline of the language century after century. All the best English writers at all periods, including Shakespeare and most of the mavens themselves, have been among the flagrant flouters. The rules conform neither to logic nor to tradition, and if were ever followed they would force writers into fuzzy, clumsy, wordy, ambiguous, incomprehensible prose, in which certain thoughts are not expressible at all. Indeed, most of the “ignorant errors” these rules are supposed to correct display an elegant logic and an acute sensitivity to the grammatical texture of the language to which the mavens are oblivious.

His reasoning isn’t simply ‘language evolves and we should with it’, it’s a logical examination of the underlying structure that finds the rules wanting. 18th century scholars decided we shouldn’t split infinitives to make English more like the ‘superior’ Latin. But Latin infinitives are one word and inherently unsplittable. English is a different kind of language, ‘building sentences around many simple words instead of a few complex ones’, and infinitives are two words: to go / to jump / to splat. There’s no reason not to slip an adverb in there. ‘To boldly go’ is no less clear than ‘to go boldly’.

But the most surprising and unexpected section was an analysis of the “‘misuse’ of pronoun case inside conjunctions”. Or, was Bill Clinton wrong to say ‘Give Al Gore and I a chance’?

I know this one. I can do it. I first learnt the quick rule about removing the other player and keeping the pronoun: get rid of Al Gore from the sentence and it’d be ‘Give me a chance’, therefore the correct phrase is ‘Give Al Gore and me a chance’. I later figured out how to recognise subjects and objects in a sentence, and can usually manage it on the fly, providing the structure isn’t too complex. A chance is being given to Al Gore and me. Therefore Al Gore and I are the objects of the sentence. The first-person object pronoun is ‘me’ – ‘I’ is the first-person subject pronoun. I know this one.

Total bollocks.

‘Al Gore and I’ is a conjunction. So is ‘He and Bob’. Individually, you’d write ‘He is’ and ‘Bob is’, but put them together and you obviously get ‘He and Bob are’. But look: ‘are’ refers to a plural, yet ‘He’ and ‘Bob’ are singular – they only become plural when together in the conjunction, which is treated as a unit on its own. But if the items inside a conjunction don’t need to match with the grammatical number, why should they have to match with the subject/object? It’s the conjunction that’s the subject or object, not the items within it – ‘Al Gore and I’ is the object of the ‘Give Al Gore and I a chance’ sentence, and it’s self-contained. There’s no reason why the ‘I’ should change, any more than ‘He and Bob are’ should become ‘He’s and Bob’s are’3. There’s actually no rule of language which says what case the parts of the conjunction should have, and furthermore:

The linguist Joseph Edmonds has analyzed the Me and Jennifer / Between you and I phenomenon in great technical detail. He concludes that the language that the mavens want us to speak is not only not English, it is not a possible human language!

Gotta get hold of that.

He goes on to demonstrate why ‘hopefully’ can be used in any bloody way you want, and there are plenty more. It all surprised the hell out of me. Grammatical rules fall out of the innate language structures in our brains, and humans are very, very good at obeying them. Nobody says ‘Give I a chance’ or ‘Me is leaving’. It’s not that people don’t make mistakes, but it’s usually for good reasons such as not knowing the irregular verb form. Writing is a whole different skillset, but in speech many mistakes are due to higher-pressure situations, which is why the Plain English Campaign making fun of spoken phrases is pretty stupid.

It’s close to a general statement: when it comes to spoken language, any rules you need to have drilled into you are probably wrong, and those who would force change don’t understand why. Prescriptive linguistic folklore turns out to be no different from urban folklore, and professional linguists are the of the language world4.

The whole chapter is (officially) available online, and definitely worth a look.

  1. including a possible exception to the universal grammar []
  2. I’ve just discovered there’s a 2007 edition. Want. []
  3. “He’s” looks weird, but I think this makes sense. Admittedly Prof. Pinker didn’t put it like this. []
  4. although he admits they’ve been terrible in this regard []