October 4, 2010

English Usage

Category: Language,Literature :: Permalink

David Foster Wallace’s essay “Authority and American Usage,” in spite of problems you can find discussed at various sites online (this essay sparked something of a firestorm and some of the criticisms seem just), was quite helpful.  Ostensibly a review of Bryan Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, which Wallace praises highly, the essay wades into the stormy waters of the debate between those who believe that grammar ought to be prescriptive, laying down rules that speakers and writers ought to follow, and those who think that grammar (and dictionary definitions, for that matter) merely describe how English is being used today.

Wallace criticizes some of the rules laid down by the prescriptivists.  He defends, for instance, the expression “Where’s it at?”:

For a dogmatic Prescriptivist, “Where’s it at?” is double-damned as a sentence that not only ends with a preposition but whose final preposition forms a redundancy with where that’s similar to the redundancy in “the reason is because” (which latter usage I’ll admit makes me dig my nails into my palms).  Rejoinder: First off, the avoid-terminal-propositions rule is the invention of one Fr. R. Louth, an 18th-century British preacher and indurate pedant who did things like spend scores of pages arguing for hath over the trendy and degenerate has.  The a.-t.-p. rule is antiquated and stupid and only the most ayotolloid SNOOT [Wallace’s term for a grammar-stickler — JB] takes it seriously.  Garner himself calls the rule “stuffy” and lists all kinds of useful constructions like “a person I have great respect for” and “the man I was listening to” that we’d have to discard or distort if we really enforced it.

Plus, the apparent redundancy of “Where’s it at?” (a redundancy that’s a bit arbitrary, since “Where’s it from?” isn’t redundant [mainly because whence has receded into semi-archaism]) is offset by its metrical logic: what the at really does is license the contraction of is after the interrogative adverb.  You can’t say “Where’s it?”  So the choice is between “Where is it?” and “Where’s it at?”, and the latter, a strong anapest, is prettier and trips off the tongue better than “Where is it?”, whose meter is either a clunky monosyllabic-foot + trochee or it’s nothing at all (99; I moved the parenthetical comment from the footnote into the main text ’cause I’m not footnoting this blog entry).

I was told in university that I shouldn’t start a sentence with “hopefully” (as in “Hopefully, I’ll be home by 6:30 tonight”), because “hopefully” is an adverb and therefore this sentence means that I will be home, full of home, by 6:30.  Well, no.  Wallace explains:

And Hopefully at the beginning of a sentence, as a certain cheeky eighth-grader once (to his everlasting social cost) pointed out in class, actually functions not as a misplaced modal auxiliary or as a manner adverb like quickly or angrily but as a sentence adverb (i.e., as a special kind of “veiled reflexive” that indicates the speaker’s attitude about the state of affairs described by the rest of the sentence — examples of perfectly OK sentence adverbs are clearly, basically, luckily)…. (100-101).

So he’s not an old-school prescriptivist, imposing alien and Latinate grammar on English.  But he points out that it’s still important for English-speakers to learn, at least alongside their various colloquial ways of communicating, Standard Written English.  He helpfully compares usage rules to the conventions of etiquette: when you speak or write, you are not simply communicating the particular information found in your sentence; you are also communicating a lot about yourself — and how you want people to view you — not to mention how you regard the person you’re speaking to.  If you want people to take you seriously in certain settings, you need to communicate in Standard English, even if that’s not the way you speak at home or with your friends.

On the other hand, the kid who speaks only in Standard Written English — imagine a child who never uses contractions or “whose response to striking out in T-ball is to shout ‘How incalculably dreadful!'” (102) — is going to get a lot of wedgies (a word Wallace mysteriously, and incorrectly, capitalizes) from his classmates, because he’s “actually deficient in Language Arts.  He has only one dialect” (104).

This is one of the longest essays in the book and probably the densest.  Wallace crams a lot in here, and, not surprisingly, this is one of the essays that has Wallace’s trademark footnotes-to-footnotes and interpolations, the result of which is that I can’t possibly summarize what he says.  But I can say that I found a lot of what he says here helpful in thinking through how we teach grammar and, perhaps more importantly, why we communicate the way we do.  It’s not just a matter of following rules because some Language Legislature imposed them in the past and language must never change.  Instead, Wallace says, it’s a matter of communication and the rules of Standard Written English, for the most part, help us do that a lot of the time.

Posted by John Barach @ 3:32 pm | Discuss (2)

2 Responses to “English Usage”

  1. Doug Roorda Says:

    Not to mention the easily sensed difference in meaning between “where are you?” and “where are you at?” The first can imply “where ARE you? You should be in Pittsburgh by now, you moron!” The second just means “did you go to the mall, or decide to stay at the ball game?” I hadn’t thought before about how the natural accenting/emphasis contributes to this. (Or “that;” I always get my near and far demonstratives confused.) (Or should it be ”that”;’? or should this (?) be “Or should it be ‘”that”;?'”) (etc.)

  2. John Barach Says:

    Good point, Doug. It’s hard to say “Where are you?” without emphasizing one of the words and thus creating confusion.

    You say “WHERE are you?” when the person has already told you where he is and you aren’t sure you heard correctly.

    You say “Where ARE you?” as in the example you gave.

    You say “Where are YOU?” when you mean to imply “I’m where we’re supposed to be, but you’re not here.”

    Wallace points out that many grammatical rules have the purpose of eliminating confusion. Take, for instance, “People who eat that kind of mushroom often get sick” (90) which, as Wallace says

    confuses the message’s recipient about whether he’ll get sick only if he eats the mushroom frequently or whether he stands a good chance of getting sick the very first time he eats it. In other words, the fungiphagic community has a vested practical interest in excluding this kind of misplaced modifier from acceptable usage; and, given the purposes the community uses language for, the fact that a certain percentage of tribesmen screw up and use misplaced modifiers to talk about food safety does not eo ipso make m.m.’s a good idea” (90).

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