A new book fights back against the marauding bands of linguistic snobs who want to make it clear how much smarter than you they are
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Have you ever had a preening pedant correct you when you split an infinitive? Has a self-righteous scold kindly let you know that one thing cannot be “more unique” than another? Perchance you’ve had to sit through an apocalyptic screed about how young people are becoming illiterates, mutilating an English language that was once so revered—about how the day is nigh when we shall all just drool to each other through the Twitter!
Well, there is now a book full of ways that you can tell such people to put it where the sun don’t shine. Or at least let them know it ain’t nothing. Bad English, on sale June 3 from Perigree, is a 255-page takedown of linguistic snobbery—detailing the ways people are being hypocritical and arbitrary when they insist on a strict adherence to rules they learned in high school.
“You frequently hear people say, before attacking you, that they care about language,” says author Ammon Shea. “We all care about language. To me that seems like euphemistic shorthand for saying ‘I like to correct the language use of others,’ which I have always found unseemly.”
And so he dug through the centuries of history that led to these rules—like when one must use disinterested vs. uninterested—finding that, often as not, those rules used to be completely different than what they are today. Along the way he debunks linguistic factoids, like the assertion that Shakespeare invented 10% of the words he used, and defends unlikely, oft-maligned characters like Sarah Palin, Dan Quayle and people who say like a lot.
On one level, of course, this fine book is just pedantry of one sort undermining pedantry of another sort. But Shea’s deeper message is that language isn’t fixed—and that inventiveness and playfulness, whether in the form of combining words, or using emoticons, or plopping because into an entirely new grammatical construction, should be celebrated rather than stifled. He also hopes that it “will relieve many of us of the vague yet persistent unease that we are doing something improper.”
“Telling people that they are wrong in a malicious fashion is useless,” says Shea, who has also written a book about his quest to read the entire Oxford English Dictionary. “What would be helpful to acknowledge is not only are some of these rules incredibly capricious, they’re also constantly changing … The thing that is oft overlooked is that as language changes, the rules that govern it change as well.”
Here are some examples of the many of the comebacks you can use next time some jerk corrects your grammar or word usage:
“Stop saying like so much. It’s meaningless.”
Shea explains that while like might be a staple of the Valley girl caricature, the word is actually performing useful linguistic duties:
- In the sentence “She was like, ‘Get out of my face,” the word signals the beginning of a quote and is known as a quotatative compartmentalizer.
- In the sentence “It’s going to take me like forever to get there,” it functions as an approximative adverb, signaling how strongly to interpret the following word; almost and barely play similar roles.
- In the sentences “I stole a panda. Like, I couldn’t live without him,” like is a discourse marker, a word used at the beginning of a sentence indicating that a clarification of what has just been said will now be given; one might similarly use I mean to introduce more information.
“Don’t say something is ‘more unique.’ That’s like saying it’s ‘most best.’’”
The notion behind this common correction is that unique means something is truly one-of-a-kind, which a thing either is or is not, without degree—just like someone is the best or they are not the best. This word, Shea explains, does come from the Latin unicus, meaning one-of-a-kind, but when people started to widely use it in the 1800s, the meaning quickly broadened. In 1816, celebrated poet Sir Walter Scott wrote that celebrated satirist Jonathan Swift was “more unique” than any of his contemporaries. Today, dictionaries have largely relented. In a third definition, Merriam-Webster defines unique as simply “unusual.”
“You shouldn’t start sentences with and or but.”
This grievous error is committed no fewer than eight times in a little document called the Constitution. For those of a more religious bent, it may be worth pointing out that this sin is all over the Bible. The use of and to begin a sentence, Shea found, dates back to the year 855. And writers have been giving these conjunctions top billing ever since. Tell the next person precious about conjunction placement to put that in his pipe and smoke it.
“Disinterested means impartial. Uninterested means you don’t give a hoot.”
Fun fact: these words originally meant the exact opposite things that semantic samurai insist that they do now. Tracing the uses back to the 1600s, Shea explains that interchanging them didn’t seem to bother anyone for decades, until the “two met at some sort of unholy semantic swap meet and secretly agreed to change meanings.” Only in relatively modern times have grammarians found the mix-up to be cause for slapping the ruler on the desk.
“Potato is spelled sans ‘e.’”
“Dan Quayle,” Shea writes, “died for your sins”: Everyone now knows, because he was so pilloried for misspelling potato in public, how to spell that word. But potatoe, the albatross around the former vice president’s neck, was actually in use, in print, throughout the 20th century, appearing in such sources as the New York Times, the Washington Post and the San Francisco Chronicle. Shea blames the joke-butting of Quayle on partisan politics and the tendency of those on the left to deride the intellectual abilities of those on the right.
“Only uneducated people split infinitives.”
An infinitive verb is the form with to in the front like, “to be” or “not to be.” Some traditionalists become apoplectic when an adverb is slipped between those two words, like “to boldly go.” But Shea discovered that infinitives have been split since the thirteenth century and that the reason we have this proscription today is because some grumpy grammarians from the 1800s decided that verbs would sound more like Latin, in which it is impossible to split infinitives, if they stayed in one piece. But, Shea points out, Chaucer has split, Shakespeare has split, and not to split sometimes just sounds terrible.
After all, while Shea acknowledges that some rules are useful and that standards have a time and place, he recommends that we let our ears be our guide—and if we can still understand somebody who is speaking in an heretic manner, we might take time to think about it rather than judge it.
This is an edition of Wednesday Words, a weekly feature on language. For the previous post, click here.