Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.


Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Barking Kitten, Official Mossback

In this article, we read of the lucky few chosen to lay down linguistic law.

What wordy type doesn't harbor a wish to be on such a committee?

"Such a split (between word usage) does not unsettle Barbara Wallraff, a panel member who writes the syndicated column 'Word Court.' 'It doesn’t mean half of us are right and half are wrong,' she said. 'It means that educated opinion is divided and you won’t look like an idiot either way. And if you want to be more traditional, that will be pretty clear; if you want to be in the vanguard, that will be clear.'"

So usage is merely a matter of fashion?

'You can think of it that way, and I often do,' Ms. Wallraff said. 'Some people shop at Brooks Brothers and they don’t want this year’s outfit because it won’t be current next year. Other people say, ‘I need something with a little metallic in it, so I’ll look like I know what’s going on out there.’"

And what kind of a word shopper is Ms. Wallraff? "I have a big closet.''

David Foster Wallace, also on the committee:

"Mr. Wallace, meanwhile, is a self-described Syntax Nudnik of Our Time, or Snoot. In his 2005 book of essays, 'Consider the Lobster,' he explained: 'The Evil is all around us: boners and clunkers and solecistic howlers and bursts of voguish linguistic methane that make any Snoot’s cheek twitch and forehead darken. A fellow Snoot I know likes to say that listening to most people’s English feels like watching somebody use a Stradivarius to pound nails. We are the Few, the Proud, the Appalled at Everyone Else.'"

Amen, brother! I work with somebody who uses the article "a" before all nouns. "A apple." "A bus." "A accident." She is a native speaker of English, a high school graduate with a professional working history. I like her immensely, but her speech often makes me want to scream.

Of course she isn't the only linguistic criminal. It's college application time, that dread moment when would-be doctoral students must submit both a "personal statement" and a "statement of purpose" along with their transcripts and glowing letters of reccommendation.

I read every application to our department. This is, for the most part, a grueling experience. I am not speaking here of the international students; many have understandably fragmented English. It is the native speakers who give me grief.

Out of nearly 150 essays, perhaps four are well-organized, utilize correct spelling, punctuate accurately, and generally adhere to some notion of linguistic "flow." Most are disorganized heaps of words tossed into the computer like so many pieces of Play-Doh hurled at the wall.

Though I would love to quote, I cannot, as it violates student privacy laws. And it isn't a nice thing to do anyway.

Our applicants are the proverbial cream of the crop. Most are white, the progeny of wealthy, highly educated professionals able to send their children to the best schools. These kids do not need to work; they spend their summers working in labs, go abroad for junior year, participate in kiddie orchestra or the cycling team.

But their written English reflects none of this privilege. Most have impoverished vocabularies; in their effors to sound educated, they make poor word choices: "discernable" instead of "clear", "abstract" instead of "confusing," "currency" instead of wealth. [Hockeyman here - BK says the criminal in question really meant "wealth" by "currency", not "money". I asked. Horrors!] One wrote "fare" instead of "fair." [HM - AAAARRRRRRGGGGH!] I realize these missteps aren't so terrible out of context, but collectively they add up to an illiterate nation.

Hell, just listen to Bush, if you can bear to.

Am I a mossback language prescriptivist? Yep. That is, I have no objection to the appalling slang that stands in for English communication these days, provided people are taught to read and speak standard English. It appears most are not, robbing them of the choice to either communicate in slang or utilize what my college linguistics professor called "high register" speech. As a nation we are the poorer for it. Individually, lack of standard English is economcially hurtful; it is difficult to find employment in, say, a law firm when you cannot answer the telephone professionally. We're less inclined to admit you to our Ph.D. program when you cannot articulate your research interests.

Nor do you care whether the dictionary determines "factoid" or "irregardless" as standard. You don't realize they aren't, and never will be, irregardless of how the New Oxford American Dictionary Committee votes.


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