Grammar Puss

 

Steven Pinker

 

 

   Steven  Pinker  is  a  Professor  in  the  Department  of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT. This article is taken in part  from  his  book  [The  Language Instinct] (Morrow, February 1994). 

 

 Language  is  a  human  instinct.    All societies have complex language, and everywhere the languages use the  same  kinds  of  grammatical  machinery  like nouns, verbs, auxiliaries, and agreement.  All normal children develop language without conscious effort or formal lessons, and by the age of three they  speak in   fluent   grammatical   sentences,  outperforming  the  most  sophisticated computers. Brain damage or congenital conditions can make a person a linguistic savant  while  severely  retarded,  or  unable  to  speak normally despite high intelligence. All this has led many scientists,  beginning  with  the  linguist Noam  Chomsky  in  the  late  1950's,  to  conclude  that there are specialized circuits in the human brain, and perhaps specialized  genes,  that  create  the gift of articulate speech. 

 

 But  when  you  read  about  language  in  the  popular press, you get a very different  picture.  Johnny  can't  construct  a   grammatical   sentence.   As educational  standards  decline  and  pop culture disseminates the inarticulate ravings and unintelligible patois of surfers, rock stars, and valley girls,  we are  turning  into  a  nation  of functional illiterates: misusing [hopefully], confusing [lie] and  [lay],  treating  [bummer]  as  a  sentence,  letting  our participles  dangle.   English itself will steadily decay unless we get back to basics and start to respect our language again. 

 

 What is behind this contradiction?  If language is as instinctive  to  humans as  dam-building is to beavers, if every 3-year-old is a grammatical genius, if the design of syntax is coded in our DNA and wired into our  brains,  why,  you might  wonder,  is  the  English language in such a mess?  Why does the average American sound like a gibbering fool every time he opens his mouth or puts  pen to paper? 

 

 The contradiction begins in the fact that the words "rule" and "grammar" have very different meanings to a scientist and to a layperson.   The  rules  people learn  (or  more  likely,  fail  to  learn) in school are called [prescriptive] rules, prescribing how one "ought"  to  talk.    Scientists  studying  language propose  [descriptive]  rules,  describing  how  people [do] talk -- the way to determine whether a construction is "grammatical" is to find people  who  speak the language and ask them.  Prescriptive and descriptive grammar are completely different things, and there is a good  reason  that  scientists  focus  on  the descriptive rules. 

 

 To  a  scientist,  the  fundamental  fact  of  human  language  is  its sheer improbability.  Most objects in the universe -- rocks, trees, worms, cows, cars --  cannot  talk.  Even  in  humans,  the  utterances  in  a  language  are  an infinitesimal fraction of the noises people's mouths are capable of  making.  I can arrange a combination of words that explains how octopuses make love or how to build an atom bomb in your basement; rearrange the words in  even  the  most minor  way,  and  the  result  is  a sentence with a different meaning or, most likely of all, word salad.  How are we to account for this miracle? What  would it take to build a device that could duplicate human language? 

 

 Obviously,  you  need  to  build  in  some  kind  of  rules,  but  what kind? Prescriptive rules?  Imagine trying to build a talking machine by designing  it to  obey  rules  like "Don't split infinitives" or "Never begin a sentence with [because]." It would just sit there. In fact, we  already  have  machines  that don't  split  infinitives;  they're  called screwdrivers, bathtubs, cappuccino- makers, and so on.  Prescriptive  rules  are  useless  without  the  much  more fundamental  rules  that  create  the  sentences to begin with. These rules are never mentioned in  style  manuals  or  school  grammars  because  the  authors correctly  assume  that anyone capable of reading the manuals must already have the rules.  No one, not even a valley girl, has to be told not to  say  [Apples the eat boy] or [Who did you meet John and?]  or the vast, vast majority of the trillions of mathematically possible combinations of words. So when a scientist considers  all  the  high-tech  mental  machinery  needed to arrange words into ordinary sentences, prescriptive rules are,  at  best,  inconsequential  little decorations.    The  very fact that they have to be drilled shows that they are alien to the natural workings of the language system.  One can choose to obsess over  prescriptive  rules, but they have no more to do with human language than the criteria for judging cats at a cat show have to do with mammalian biology. 

 

 So there is no contradiction, after all, in saying that every  normal  person can  speak  grammatically  (in the sense of systematically) and ungrammatically (in the sense of nonprescriptively), just  as  there  is  no  contradiction  in saying  that  a  taxi  obeys  the  laws  of  physics  but  breaks  the  laws of Massachusetts.  But still, this raises a question.  Someone, somewhere, must be making  decisions about "correct English" for the rest of us. Who?  There is no English Language Academy, and  this  is  just  as  well;  the  purpose  of  the Acade'mie  Franc

aise  is  to  amuse  journalists  from  other  countries  with bitterly-argued decisions that the French gaily ignore.    Nor  was  there  any English  Language  Constitutional  Conference  at  the  beginning of time.  The legislators  of  "correct  English,"  in  fact,  are  an  informal  network  of copy-editors,   dictionary  usage  panelists,  style  manual  writers,  English teachers, essayists, and pundits. Their authority, they claim, comes from their dedication  to implementing standards that have served the language well in the past, especially in the prose of its finest  writers,  and  that  maximize  its clarity,  logic,  consistency,  elegance,  precision, stability, and expressive range.  William Safire, who writes the weekly column "On Language" for the [New York  Times  Magazine], calls himself a "language maven," from the Yiddish word meaning expert, and this gives us a convenient label for the entire group. 

 

 To whom I say: Maven, shmaven! [Kibbitzers] and [nudniks] is  more  like  it. For  here  are  the  remarkable  facts.   Most of the prescriptive rules of the language mavens make no sense on any level.  They are  bits  of  folklore  that originated for screwball reasons several hundred years ago and have perpetuated themselves ever since.  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 writers in  English  have  been  among  the flagrant  flouters.    The rules conform neither to logic nor tradition, and if they 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. 

 

 The scandal of the language mavens began in the 18th  Century.    The  London dialect had become an important world language, and scholars began to criticize it as they would any institution, in part to  question  the  authority  of  the aristocracy.    Latin was considered the language of enlightenment and learning and it was offered as an ideal of precision and logic to which  English  should aspire.    The  period  also  saw unprecedented social mobility, and anyone who wanted to distinguish himself as cultivated had to master the best  version  of English.  These  trends created a demand for handbooks and style manuals, which were soon shaped by market forces: the manuals tried to outdo  one  another  by including  greater  numbers  of  increasingly  fastidious rules that no refined person  could  afford  to  ignore.  Most  of  the  hobgoblins  of  contemporary prescriptive  grammar  (don't  split  infinitives,  don't end a sentence with a preposition) can be traced back to these 18th Century fads. 

 

 Of course, forcing modern speakers of English to not -- whoops, not to  split an  infinitive  because  it  isn't  done  in Latin makes about as much sense as forcing modern residents of England to wear laurels and  togas.  Julius  Caesar could not have split an infinitive if he had wanted to. In Latin the infinitive is a single word like [facere], a  syntactic  atom.    But  in  English,  which prefers  to  build  sentences  around  many  simple  words  instead  of  a  few complicated ones,  the  infinitive  is  composed  of  two  words.    Words,  by definition,  are rearrangeable units, and there is no conceivable reason why an adverb should not come between them:       Space -- the final frontier ... These are the voyages of the starship     [Enterprise].  Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to     seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man  has     gone before. To  [go  boldly]  where no man has gone before?  Beam me up, Scotty; there's no intelligent life down  here.  As  for  outlawing  sentences  that  end  with  a preposition  (impossible  in  Latin  for  reasons  irrelevant to English) -- as Winston Churchill would have said, it is a rule up with  which  we  should  not put. 

 

 But once introduced, a prescriptive rule is very hard to eradicate, no matter how ridiculous. Inside the educational and writing  establishments,  the  rules survive  by  the  same  dynamic that perpetuates ritual genital mutilations and college fraternity hazing: I had to go through it and am none the worse, so why should you have it any easier? Anyone daring to overturn a rule by example must always worry that readers will think he or she is ignorant of the rule,  rather than  challenging it. Perhaps most importantly, since prescriptive rules are so psychologically unnatural that only those with access to  the  right  schooling can  abide  by  them, they serve as shibboleths, differentiating the elite from the rabble.  Throughout the country people have spoken a  dialect  of  English, some  of  whose  features  date  to  the  Early  Modern  English  period,  that H. L. Mencken called The American  Language.  It  had  the  misfortune  of  not becoming  the  standard  of  government  and  education, and large parts of the "grammar" curriculum in American schools have been dedicated to stigmatizing it as  ungrammatical  sloppy  speech.    Familiar  examples  are [aks a question], [ain't], [I don't see no birds], [he don't], [them boys], [we  was],  and  past tense  forms  like  [drug,  I  seen  it, drownded] and [growed].  For ambitious adults who had been unable to complete school, there  were  full-page  magazine ads  for  correspondence  courses, containing lists of examples under screaming headlines like "DO YOU MAKE ANY OF THESE EMBARRASSING MISTAKES?" 

 

 Frequently the language mavens claim that nonstandard American English is not just  different,  but less sophisticated and logical. The case, they would have to admit, is hard to make for nonstandard irregular verbs like [drag-drug] (and even  more  so for conversions to regularity like [feeled] and [growed]). After all, in "correct" English, Richard Lederer noted, "Today we speak, but first we spoke;  some  faucets leak, but never loke. Today we write, but first we wrote; we bite our tongues, but never bote." At first glance, the mavens would seem to have  a better argument when it comes to the loss of conjugational distinctions in [He don't] and [We was].  But then, this has  been  the  trend  in  Standard English  for  centuries.    No one gets upset that we no longer distinguish the second person singular form of verbs,  as  in  [thou  sayest].    And  by  this criterion  it  is  the  nonstandard  dialects  that  are superior, because they provide their speakers with second person  plural  pronouns  like  [y'all]  and [youse], and Standard English does not. 

 

 At this point, defenders of the standard are likely to pull out the notorious double negative, as in [I can't get no satisfaction.]  Logically speaking,  the two  negatives cancel each other out, they teach; Mr. Jagger is actually saying that he  is  satisfied.  The  song  should  be  entitled  "I  Can't  Get  [Any] Satisfaction."  But  this reasoning is not satisfactory.  Hundreds of languages require their speakers to use a negative element in the context  of  a  negated verb.  The  so-called  "double  negative," far from being a corruption, was the norm in Chaucer's Middle English, and negation in standard French, as in [Je ne sais  pas]  where  [ne] and [pas] are both negative, is a familiar contemporary example.  Come to think of it, standard English is really no different.    What do [any], [even], and [at all] mean in the following sentences?      I didn't buy any lottery tickets.      I didn't eat even a single french fry.      I didn't eat fried food at all today. Clearly, not much: you can't use them alone, as the following strange sentences show:      I bought any lottery tickets.      I ate even a single french fry.      I ate fried food at all today. What these words are doing  is  exactly  what  [no]  is  doing  in  nonstandard American  English,  such as in the equivalent [I didn't buy no lottery tickets] -- agreeing with the negated verb. The  slim  difference  is  that  nonstandard English  co-opted  the  word  [no]  as  the agreement element, whereas Standard English co-opted the word [any]. 

 

 A tin ear for stress and melody, and an obliviousness to  the  principles  of discourse  and  rhetoric,  are  important  tools  of the trade for the language maven.  Consider an alleged atrocity committed by today's youth: the expression [I  could  care  less]. The teenagers are trying to express disdain, the adults note, in which case they should be saying [I couldn't care less]. If they could care  less  than  they do, that means that they really do care, the opposite of what they are trying to say.    But  if  these  dudes  would  stop  ragging  on teenagers and scope out the construction, they would see that their argument is bogus.  Listen to how the two versions are pronounced:   COULDN'T care                 I                  LE                       CARE i                  ESS.                          LE                                    could           ESS. The melodies and stresses are completely different, and for a good reason.  The second version is not illogical, it's [sarcastic]. The point of sarcasm is that by  making  an  assertion  that  is  manifestly   false   or   accompanied   by ostentatiously  mannered  intonation,  one deliberately implies its opposite. A good paraphrase is, "Oh yeah, as if there were something in the  world  that  I care less about." 

 

 Sometimes  an alleged grammatical "error" is logical not only in the sense of "rational," but in the sense of respecting distinctions made by  the  logician. Consider this alleged barbarism:      Everyone returned to their seats.      If anyone calls, tell them I can't come to the phone.      No one should have to sell their home to pay for medical care. The mavens explain: [everyone] means [every one], a singular subject, which may not serve as the antecedent of a  plural  pronoun  like  [them]  later  in  the sentence.  "Everyone  returned  to [his] seat," they insist.  "If anyone calls, tell [him] I can't come to the phone." 

 

 If you were the  target  of  these  lessons,  you  might  be  getting  a  bit uncomfortable.    [Everyone  returned  to  his  seat] makes it sound like Bruce Springsteen was discovered during intermission  to  be  in  the  audience,  and everyone rushed back and converged on his seat to await an autograph.  If there is a good chance that a caller may be female, it is odd to ask  one's  roommate to  tell  [him]  anything  (even  if you are not among the people who get upset about "sexist language"). Such feelings of  disquiet  --  a  red  flag  to  any serious  linguist -- are well-founded.  The logical point that everyone but the language mavens intuitively grasps is that [everyone] and  [they]  are  not  an antecedent and a pronoun referring to the same person in the world, which would force them to agree in number. They are a "quantifier" and a "bound  variable," a different logical relationship. [Everyone returned to their seats] means "For all X, X returned to X's seat."  The "X" is simply  a  placeholder  that  keeps track of the roles that players play across different relationships: the X that comes back to a seat is the same X that owns the seat that  X  comes  back  to. The  [their]  there  does  not,  in fact, have plural number, because it refers neither to one thing nor to many things; it does not refer at all.  On  logical grounds,  then,  variables  are  not  the  same  thing  as  the  more  familiar "referential" pronouns that trigger agreement ([he] meaning to some  particular guy,  [they]  meaning  some  particular  bunch  of  guys).  Some  languages are considerate and offer their speakers different words for  referential  pronouns and for variables. But English is stingy; a referential pronoun must be drafted into service to lend its name when a speaker needs to use a variable.  There is no  reason  that  the vernacular decision to borrow [they, their, them] for the task is any worse than the prescriptivists' recommendation of [he,  him,  his]. Indeed, [they] has the advantage of embracing both sexes and feeling right in a wider variety of sentences. 

 

 Through the ages, language mavens have  deplored  the  way  English  speakers convert  nouns  into verbs. The following verbs have all been denounced in this century:      to caveat           to input         to host      to nuance           to access        to chair      to dialogue         to showcase      to progress      to parent           to intrigue      to contact                          to impact   As you can see, they  range  from  varying  degrees  of  awkwardness  to  the completely unexceptionable. In fact, easy conversion of nouns to verbs has been part of English grammar for centuries; it is one of  the  processes  that  make English  English. I have estimated that about a fifth of all English verbs were originally nouns. Considering just the human body, you can [head  a  committee, scalp  the  missionary, eye a babe, stomach someone's complaints], and so on -- virtually every body part can be  verbed  (including  several  that  cannot  be printed in a family journal of opinion). 

 

 What's  the  problem?  The concern seems to be that fuzzy-minded speakers are slowly eroding the distinction between nouns and verbs.  But  once  again,  the person  in  the  street  is not getting any respect. A simple quirk of everyday usage shows why the accusation is untrue. Take the baseball term [to fly  out], a  verb  that  comes  from the noun [a pop fly]. The past tense is [flied], not [flew]; no mere mortal has ever [flown out] to center  field.    Similarly,  in using  the  verb-from-noun  [to ring the city] (form a ring around), people say [ringed], not [rang], and for [to grandstand] (play to  the  grandstand),  they say  [grandstanded] not [grandstood]. Speakers' preference for the regular form with [-ed] shows that they are tacitly sensitive to the  fact  that  the  verbs came  from  nouns.    They  avoid  irregular forms like [flew out] because they intuitively sense that the  baseball  verb  [to  fly]  is  different  from  the ordinary  verb  [to  fly]  (what birds do): the first is a verb based on a noun root, the second, a verb with a verb root.  Only the verb root  is  allowed  to have  the irregular past-tense form [flew], because only for verb roots does it make sense to have [any] past-tense form. The quirk shows that when people  use a noun as a verb, they are making their mental dictionaries more sophisticated, not less so -- it's not that words are losing their identities as verbs  versus nouns;  rather,  there are verbs, there are nouns, and there are verbs based on nouns, and people store each one with a different mental tag. 

 

 The most remarkable aspect of the special status of verbs-from-nouns is  that everyone  feels  it. I have tried out examples on hundreds of people -- college students, volunteers without a college education,  and  children  as  young  as four.  They all behave like good intuitive grammarians: they inflect verbs that come from nouns differently  from  plain  old  verbs.    So  is  there  anyone, anywhere,  who  does  not  grasp  the  principle?  Yes  -- the language mavens. Uniformly, the style manuals bungle  their  explanations  of  [flied  out]  and similar lawful examples. 

 

 I  am  obliged  to discuss one more example: the much-vilified [hopefully]. A sentence like [Hopefully, the treaty will pass] is said to be  a  grave  error. The adverb [hopefully] comes from the adjective [hopeful], meaning "in a manner full of hope." Therefore, the mavens say, it  should  be  used  only  when  the sentence  refers  to a person who is doing something in a hopeful manner. If it is the writer or reader who is hopeful, one should say [It is  hoped  that  the treaty will pass], or [If hopes are realized, the treaty will pass], or [I hope that the treaty will pass.] 

 

 Now consider the following: 

 

 1. It is simply not true that an English adverb must indicate the  manner  in which  the  actor performs the action. Adverbs come in two kinds: "verb phrase" adverbs like [carefully], which do refer to the actor, and  "sentence"  adverbs like  [frankly],  which indicate the attitude of the speaker toward the content of  the  sentence.  Other  examples  of  sentence  adverbs  are   [accordingly, basically,  confidentially,  happily,  mercifully,  roughly,  supposedly],  and [understandably].  Many (like [happily]) come from  verb  phrase  adverbs,  and they  are  virtually  never  ambiguous  in context. The use of [hopefully] as a sentence adverb, which has been around for at least 60 years,  is  a  perfectly sensible example. 

 

 2.  The suggested alternatives [It is hoped that] and [If hopes are realized] display four famous sins of  bad  writing:    passive  voice,  needless  words, vagueness, pomposity. 

 

 3.  The  suggested alternatives do not mean the same thing as [hopefully], so the ban would leave  certain  thoughts  unexpressible.    [Hopefully]  makes  a hopeful  prediction,  whereas  [I  hope  that]  and  [It  is hoped that] merely describe certain people's mental states.  Thus you can say  [I  hope  that  the treaty  will pass, but it isn't likely], but it would be odd to say [Hopefully, the treaty will pass, but it isn't likely]. 

 

 4. We are supposed to use [hopefully] only as a verb phrase adverb, as in the following:      Hopefully, Larry hurled the ball toward the basket with one second         left in the game.      Hopefully, Melvin turned the record over and sat back down on the         couch 11 centimeters closer to Ellen. Call  me  uncouth,  call  me ignorant, but these sentences do not belong to any language that I speak. 

 

 I have taken these examples  from  generic  schoolmarms,  copy  editors,  and writers  of  irate  letters to newspaper ombudsmen. The more prominent language mavens in the popular press come in two temperaments: Jeremiahs and Sages. 

 

 The Jeremiahs express their bitter laments and righteous prophesies of  doom. An  eminent dictionary editor, language columnist, and usage expert once wrote, quoting a poet:       As a poet, there is only one political duty and  that  is  to  defend     one's  language  from corruption. And that is particularly serious now.     It is being corrupted.  When it is corrupted, people lose faith in what     they hear, and that leads to violence. The  linguist  Dwight  Bolinger,  gently  urging this man to get a grip, had to point out that "the same number of muggers  would  leap  out  of  the  dark  if everyone conformed overnight to every prescriptive rule ever written." 

 

 In  recent  years  the  loudest Jeremiah has been the film and theater critic John Simon.  Here is a representative opening to one of his language columns:       The English language is  being  treated  nowadays  exactly  as  slave     traders  once  handled  the merchandise in their slave ships, or as the     inmates of concentration camps were dealt with by their Nazi jailers. What grammatical horror could have  inspired  this  tasteless  comparison,  you might  ask?    It  was  Tip  O'Neill's  redundantly  referring  to  his "fellow colleagues."  Speaking of the American Black English dialect, Simon says       Why should we consider some, usually  poorly  educated,  subculture's     notion  of  the relationship between sound and meaning? And how could a     grammar -- any grammar -- possibly describe that relationship?       As for "I be," "you be," "he be," etc., which should give us all  the     heebie-jeebies, these may indeed be comprehensible, but they go against     all accepted classical and modern grammars and are the product not of a     language with roots in history but of ignorance of how language works. This, of course, is nonsense from beginning to end (Black English Vernacular is uncontroversially a language with its own systematic grammar), but there is  no point  in  refuting this malicious know-nothing, for he is not participating in any sincere discussion.  Simon has simply discovered the trick used with  great effectiveness  by  certain comedians, talk show hosts, and punk-rock musicians: people of modest talent can attract the attention of the media, at least for  a while, by being unrelentingly offensive. 

 

 The  Sages, on the other hand, typified by the late Theodore Bernstein and by Safire himself, take a moderate, common-sense approach to matters of usage, and they  tease  their victims with wit rather than savaging them with invective. I enjoy reading the sages, and have nothing but awe for a pen like Safire's  that can  summarize  the  content  of  an anti-pornography statute as, "It isn't the teat, it's the tumidity."  But the sad fact is that even  Safire,  the  closest thing  we  have  to  an  enlightened  language pundit, misjudges the linguistic sophistication of the common speaker and as a result misses the target in  most of  his  commentaries and advice. To prove this charge, I will walk you through parts of one of his recent columns, from the October 4, 1992  [New  York  Times Magazine.] 

 

 The  first  story  was a nonpartisan analysis of supposed pronoun case errors made by the two candidates in the 1992 US presidential  election.  George  Bush had  recently adopted the slogan "Who do you trust?," alienating schoolteachers across the nation who noted that [who] is a subject pronoun and the question is asking about the object of [trust].  One would say [You do trust him], not [You do trust he], and so the question word should be [whom], not [who]. 

 

 In reply, one might point out that the [who/whom] distinction is a  relic  of the  English case system, abandoned by nouns centuries ago and found today only among pronouns in distinctions like [he/him].  Even  among  pronouns,  the  old distinction  between  subject [ye] and object [you] has vanished, leaving [you] to play both roles and  [ye]  as  sounding  completely  archaic.    [Whom]  has outlived  [ye],  but  is clearly moribund, and it already sounds pretentious in most spoken contexts. No one demands of Bush that he say [Whom do  ye  trust?]. If  the  language  can bear the loss of [ye], using [you] for both subjects and objects, why insist on clinging to [whom], when everyone uses  [who]  for  both subjects and objects? 

 

 Safire,  with  his enlightened attitude toward usage, recognizes the problem, and proposes       Safire's Law of Who/Whom, which forever solves the problem  troubling     writers  and  speakers  caught  between the pedantic and the incorrect:     "When [whom]  is  correct,  recast  the  sentence."  Thus,  instead  of     changing  his slogan to "Whom do you trust?" -- making him sound like a     hypereducated Yalie stiff -- Mr. Bush would win back  the  purist  vote     with "Which candidate do you trust"? 

 

 Telling  people to avoid a problematic construction sounds like common sense, but in the case of object questions  with  [who],  it  demands  an  intolerable sacrifice.  People ask questions about the objects of verbs and prepositions [a lot].  Consider the kinds of questions  one  might  ask  a  child  in  ordinary conversation:      Who did we see on the way home?      Who did you play with outside tonight?      Who did you sound like? (Imagine replacing any of these with [whom]!) Safire's advice is to change such questions to [Which person] or [Which child]. But the advice would have  people violate  the  most  important maxim of good prose: Omit needless words. It also subverts the supposed goal of rules of usage,  which  is  to  allow  people  to express  their  thoughts as clearly and precisely as possible.  A question like [Who did we see on the way home?] can embrace one person, many people,  or  any combination  or  number  of  adults,  babies, children, and familiar dogs.  Any specific  substitution  like  [Which  person?]   forecloses   some   of   these possibilities.  And how in the world would you apply Safire's Law to the famous refrain      Who're you gonna call? GHOSTBUSTERS! Extremism in defense of liberty is  no  vice.  Safire  should  have  taken  his observation  about  the  pedantic sound of [whom] to its logical conclusion and advised the president that there is no reason to change the slogan, at least no grammatical reason. 

 

 Turning  to the Democrats, Safire gets on Bill Clinton's case, as he puts it, for asking voters to "give Al Gore and I a chance to bring  America  back."  No one would say [give I a break], because the indirect object of [give] must have objective case. So it should be [give Al Gore and me a chance.] 

 

 Probably no "grammatical error" has received as much  scorn  as  "misuse"  of pronoun  case  inside  conjunctions  (phrases with two parts joined by [and] or [or]). What teenager has not been corrected for saying  [Me  and  Jennifer  are going to the mall]? The standard story is that the object pronoun [me] does not belong in subject position -- no one would say [Me is going to the mall] --  so it  should  be [Jennifer and I]. People tend to misremember the advice as "When in doubt, say 'so-and-so and I', not 'so-and-so and me'," so they  unthinkingly overapply it, resulting in hyper-corrected solecisms like [give Al Gore and I a chance] and the even more despised [between you and I]. 

 

 But if the person on the street is so good at  avoiding  [Me  is  going]  and [Give  I  a  break],  and even former Rhodes Scholars and Ivy League professors can't seem to avoid [Me and Jennifer are going] and [Give Al and I  a  chance], might  it  not  be  the  mavens  that  misunderstand  English  grammar, not the speakers? The mavens' case about case rests on one  assumption:  if  an  entire conjunction  phrase  has  a  grammatical  feature like subject case, every word inside that phrase has to have that grammatical feature, too. But that is  just false. 

 

 [Jennifer]  is  singular;  you  say  [Jennifer  is],  not [Jennifer are]. The pronoun [She] is singular; you say [She is], not [She are]. But the conjunction [She  and  Jennifer]  is  not  singular, it's plural; you say [She and Jennifer are], not [She and Jennifer is.]    So  a  conjunction  can  have  a  different grammatical  number  from  the  pronouns inside it. Why, then, must it have the same grammatical [case] as the pronouns inside it?  The answer is that it  need not.    A conjunction is just not grammatically equivalent to any of its parts. If John and Marsha met, it does not mean that John met and that Marsha met.  If voters give Clinton and Gore a chance, they are not giving Gore his own chance, added on to the chance they are giving Clinton;  they  are  giving  the  entire ticket  a  chance.   So just because [Al Gore and I] is an object that requires object case, it does not mean that [I] is an object that requires object  case. By the logic of grammar, the pronoun is free to have any case it wants.  

 

 The  third  story  deconstructs  a  breathless  quote  from Barbra Streisand, describing tennis star Andre Agassi:       He's very, very intelligent; very,  very,  sensitive,  very  evolved;     more  than  his linear years. ... He plays like a Zen master. It's very     in the moment. 

 

 Safire first speculates on Streisand's use of [evolved]: "its change from the active to passive voice -- from `he [evolved from] the Missing Link' to `He [is evolved]' -- was probably  influenced  by  the  adoption  of  [involved]  as  a compliment." 

 

 These  kinds of derivations have been studied intensively in linguistics, but Safire shows here that he does not appreciate how they work.  He seems to think that people change words by being vaguely reminded of rhyming ones -- [evolved] from [involved], a kind of malapropism. But in fact people are not that  sloppy and literal-minded. New usages (like [to fly out]) are based not on rhymes, but on rules that change a word's part-of-speech category and  its  complements  in the same precise ways across dozens or hundreds of words. 

 

 Thus  Safire's suggestion that [very evolved] is based on [involved] does not work at all.  For one thing,  if  you're  involved,  it  means  that  something involves  you (you're the object), whereas if you're evolved, it means that you have been doing some evolving (you're the subject).  The problem  is  that  the conversion  of [evolved from] to [very evolved] is not a switch from the active voice of a verb to the passive voice, as in [Agassi beat Boris] --> [Boris  was beaten  by  Andre].  To  passivize  a verb you convert the direct object into a subject, so [is evolved] could only have been been passivized  from  [Something evolved  Andre]  --  but  this  transitive  form  of [evolve] does not exist in contemporary English.  Safire's explanation is like saying you can  take  [Bill bicycled  from Lexington] and change it to [Bill is bicycled] and then to [Bill is very bicycled]. 

 

 This breakdown is a good illustration of one of  the  main  scandals  of  the language  mavens:  they  show  lapses  in  elementary  problems  of grammatical analysis, like figuring out the part-of-speech category of a word. In analyzing [very  evolved],  Safire refers to the active and passive voice, two forms of a verb. But the preceding adverb [very] is an unmistakable tipoff that  [evolved] is  not  being  used  as a verb at all, but as an adjective.  Safire was misled because adjectives can look like verbs in the passive voice,  and  are  clearly related  to them, but they are not the same thing. This is the ambiguity behind the joke in the Bob Dylan lyric, "They'll stone you when you're riding in  your car;  They'll  stone you when you're playing your guitar ... Everybody must get stoned." 

 

 This discovery steers us toward the real source of [evolved].    There  is  a lively  rule in English that takes the participle of certain intransitive verbs and creates a corresponding adjective:      a leaf that has fallen -->  a fallen leaf      a testicle that has not descended --> an undescended testicle      a man who has traveled widely --> a widely traveled man      a window that has stuck --> a stuck window      snow that has drifted --> the drifted snow      a writer who has failed --> a failed writer Take this rule and apply it to [a tennis player that has evolved], and you  get [an  evolved  tennis  player].  This  solution  also allows us to make sense of Streisand's meaning. When a verb is converted from the active  to  the  passive  voice,  the  verb's  meaning  is conserved: [Dog bites man] = [Man is bitten by dog]. But when a verb is converted to an adjective, the adjective  can  acquire idiosyncratic  nuances.   Not every woman who has fallen is a fallen woman, and if someone stones you you are not necessarily stoned. We  all  evolved  from  a missing  link,  but  not  all  of  us  are  evolved  in the sense of being more spiritually sophisticated than our contemporaries. 

 

 Safire then rebukes Streisand for [more than his linear years.]       [Linear] means "direct, uninterrupted"; it has  gained  a  pejorative     vogue sense of "unimaginative," as in [linear thinking], in contrast to     insightful, inspired leaps of genius. I think what Ms.   Streisand  had     in mind was "beyond his chronological years," which is better expressed     as simply "beyond his years." You can see what she was  getting  at  --     the  years  lined  up  in  an  orderly  fashion  --  but  even  in  the     anything-goes world of show-biz lingo, not everything goes.  Strike the     set on [linear]. Like  many  language mavens, Safire underestimates the precision and aptness of slang, especially slang borrowed from technical fields. Streisand obviously  is not  using  the  sense  of  "linear" from Euclidean geometry, meaning "shortest route between two points," and the associated image of years  lined  up  in  an orderly  fashion.  She is using the sense taken from analytic geometry, meaning "proportional" or "additive." If you take a piece of graph paper and  plot  the distance  traveled at constant speed against the time that has elapsed, you get a straight line. This is called a linear  relationship;  for  every  hour  that passes,  you've  traveled another 55 miles. In contrast, if you plot the amount of money in your compound-interest account, you  get  a  nonlinear  curve  that swerves  upward;  as you leave your money in longer, the amount of interest you accrue in a year gets larger and larger.  Streisand is implying  that  Agassi's level  of  evolvedness is not proportional to his age: he floats above the line that fits everyone else, with more evolvedness than his  age  would  ordinarily entitle  him to.  Now, I cannot be sure that this is what Streisand had in mind (at the time of this writing, she has not replied  to  my  inquiry),  but  this sense  of  [linear] is common in contemporary techno-pop cant (like [feedback], [systems], [holism], [interactive], and [synergistic]), so it is unlikely  that she blundered into a perfectly apt usage by accident. 

 

 Finally, Safire comments on [very in the moment]:       This  [very] calls attention to the use of a preposition or a noun as     a modifier, as in "It's very [in]," or "It's very [New York],"  or  the     ultimate  fashion  compliment,  "It's  very  [you]." To be very [in the     moment] (perhaps a variation of [of the moment] or [up to the  minute])     appears to be a loose translation of the French [au courant], variously     translated as "up to date, fashionable, with-it" ... Once again, by patronizing Streisand's language, Safire  has  misanalyzed  both its  form and its meaning.  He has not noticed that: (1) The word [very] is not connected to the preposition [in]; it's connected to the  entire  prepositional phrase  [in the moment]. (2) Streisand is not using the intransitive [in], with its special sense of "fashionable"; she is using  the  conventional  transitive [in],  with  a  noun phrase object [the moment]. (3) Her use of a prepositional phrase as if it was an adjective to describe some  mental  or  emotional  state follows  a common pattern in English: [under the weather, out of character, off the wall, in the dumps, out to lunch, on the ball], and [out of his mind].  (4) It's  unlikely  that Streisand was trying to say that Agassi is [au courant] or fashionable; that would be a put-down implying shallowness, not  a  compliment. Her  reference  to Zen makes her meaning entirely clear: that Agassi is good at shutting out distractions and  concentrating  on  the  game  or  person  he  is involved with at that moment. 

 

 So  these are the "language mavens." Their foibles can be blamed on two blind spots. One is a gross underestimation of  the  linguistic  wherewithal  of  the common  person.  I  am  not saying that everything that comes out of a person's mouth or pen is perfectly rule-governed (remember Dan Quayle). But the language mavens  would  have a much better chance of not embarrassing themselves if they saved the verdict of linguistic incompetence as  a  last  resort,  rather  than jumping  to  it  as  a first conclusion. The other blind spot is their complete ignorance of the modern science of language  --  and  I  don't  mean  just  the often-forbidding  technicalities  of  Chomskyan  theory, but basic knowledge of what kinds of constructions and idioms are found in English, and how people use them and pronounce them. 

 

 So  what  should be done about usage?  Unlike some academics, I am not saying that instruction  in  grammar  and  composition  are  tools  to  perpetuate  an oppressive white patriarchal status quo and that The People should be liberated to write however they please. Some aspects of how people express themselves  in some  settings  [are]  worth  trying  to  change.  What I am calling for a more thoughtful  discussion  of  language  and  how   people   use   it,   replacing [bubbe-maises] (old wives' tales) with the best scientific knowledge available. It is especially important that we not underestimate the sophistication of  the actual cause of any instance of language use: the human mind. 

 

 It  is  ironic  that the jeremiads wailing about how sloppy language leads to sloppy thought are themselves  hairballs  of  loosely-associated  factoids  and tangled  nonsequiturs.  All the examples of verbal behavior that the complainer takes exception to for any reason are packed together in one  unappealing  mass and  coughed  up  as  proof  of  The  Decline  of  the Language: teenage slang, sophistry, regional  variations  in  pronunciation  and  diction,  bureaucratic bafflegab,  poor  spelling  and  punctuation,  pseudo-errors  like [hopefully], badly-crafted prose, government euphemism, nonstandard  grammar  like  [ain't], misleading advertizing, and so on (not to mention deliberate witticisms that go over the complainer's head). 

 

 I hope to have convinced you of two things.  Many prescriptive rules are just plain  dumb  and  should  be  deleted  from  the  usage handbooks.  And most of standard English is just that, standard, in the  sense  of  standard  units  of currency  or household voltages.  It is just common sense that people should be given every encouragement and opportunity to learn the dialect that has  become the  standard  one  in  their society and to employ it in many formal settings. But there is no need to use terms like "bad grammar," "fractured  syntax,"  and "incorrect  usage"  when referring to rural and Black dialects.  Though I am no fan of "politically correct" euphemism (in  which,  according  to  the  satire, "white  woman"  should be replaced by "melanin-impoverished person of gender"), using terms  like  "bad  grammar"  for  "nonstandard"  is  both  insulting  and scientifically inaccurate. 

 

 As  for slang, I'm all for it! I don't know how I ever did without [to flame] (protest self-righteously), [to dis] (express disrespect  for),  and  [to  blow off]  (dismiss  an  obligation), and there are thousands of now-unexceptionable English words like [clever], [fun], [sham], [banter], [mob], and [stingy]  that began  life  as  slang.  It  is  especially  hypocritical  to oppose linguistic innovations reflexively and at the same time to decry the loss of  distinctions like [lie] versus [lay] on the pretext of preserving expressive power. Vehicles for expressing thought are being created far more quickly than they  are  being lost. 

 

 The  aspect  of  language  use that is most worth changing is the clarity and style of written prose. Expository writing for the benefit of absent  strangers requires  language  to  express  far more complex trains of thought than it was biologically designed to do. This makes writing a difficult craft that must  be mastered  through practice, instruction, feedback, and probably most important, intensive  exposure  to  good  examples.    There  are  excellent  manuals   of composition  that  discuss  these  skills  with  great  wisdom, like Strunk and White's [The Elements of Style] and Joseph Williams's  [Style:  Toward  Clarity and  Grace].  But note how removed their practical advice is from the trivia of split infinitives and slang.  For example, a banal but universally acknowledged key to good writing is to revise extensively.  Good writers go through anywhere from two to twenty drafts  before  releasing  a  paper.  Anyone  who  does  not appreciate  this  necessity  is  going  to be a bad writer.  Imagine a Jeremiah exclaiming, "Our language today is threatened by an insidious enemy: the  youth are not revising their drafts enough times." Kind of takes the fun out, doesn't it? It's not something that can be blamed on television, rock  music,  overpaid athletes,  or  any of the other signs of the decay of civilization. But if it's clear writing that we want, this is the kind of homely remedy  that  is  called for. 

 

 Finally,  a  confession.  When  I  hear  someone  use [disinterested] to mean "apathetic," I am apt to go into a rage.  [Disinterested]  (I  suppose  I  must explain  that  it means "unbiased") is such a lovely word: it is ever-so-subtly different from [impartial] or [unbiased] in implying that that the  person  has no  stake  in  the matter, not that he is merely committed to being even-handed out of personal  principle.  It  gets  this  fine  meaning  from  its  delicate structure:   [interest]  means  "stake,"  as  in  [conflict  of  interest]  and [financial interest]; adding [-ed] to a noun can make  it  pertain  to  someone that  owns  the  referent  of  that  noun,  as  in  [moneyed],  [one-eyed],  or [hook-nosed]; [dis-] negates the combination.  The  grammatical  logic  reveals itself  in the similarly-structured [disadvantaged, disaffected, disillusioned, disjointed] and [dispossessed]. Since we already have the word  [uninterested], there  can be no reason to rob discerning language-lovers of [disinterested] by merging their meanings, except as a tacky attempt to sound  more  elevated  and high-falutin'. And don't get me started on [fortuitous] and [parameter] ... 

 

 Chill  out,  Professor. The original, 18th Century meaning of [disinterested] turns out to be -- yes, "uninterested." And that, too, makes grammatical sense. The  adjective  [interested] meaning "engaged" is far more common than the noun [interest] meaning "stake," so [dis-] can be analyzed as simply  negating  that adjective,  as  in  [discourteous],  [dishonest],  [disloyal], and the parallel [dissatisfied] and [distrusted].  But these  rationalizations  are  beside  the point.    Every  component of a language changes over time, and at any moment a language is enduring many losses. But since the human mind does not change over time,  the richness of a language is always being replenished.  Whenever any of us gets grumpy about some change in usage, we would do well to read  the  words of  Samuel  Johnson  in the Preface to his 1755 [Dictionary], a reaction to the Jeremiahs of his day:       When we see men grow old and die at a certain time one after another,     from  century  to  century,  we  laugh  at  the elixir that promises to     prolong life to a thousand  years;  and  with  equal  justice  may  the     lexicographer  be  derided,  who  being able to produce no example of a     nation that has preserved their  words  and  phrases  from  mutability,     shall  imagine  that his dictionary can embalm his language, and secure     it from corruption and decay,  that  it  is  in  his  power  to  change     sublunary  nature,  and clear the world at once from folly, vanity, and     affectation.  With this hope, however, academies have been  instituted,     to  guard  the  avenues of their languages, to retain fugitives, and to     repulse intruders; but their vigilance and activity have hitherto  been     vain;  sounds  are  too  volatile  and  subtle for legal restraints; to     enchain syllables, and to lash the wind, are equally  the  undertakings     of pride, unwilling to measure its desires by its strength.