Pullum at MIT this afternoon

Jonathan Lighter wuxxmupp2000 at GMAIL.COM
Tue Apr 20 23:34:32 UTC 2010

>       Education is not promoted through encouraging educated Americans to
>       believe, falsely, that their command of their own native language is
>       flawed and inadequate.

I'd like to know exactly what "educated" means here and which subset of
"educated Americans" is being criticized "falsely."

Without the word "educated," however, the statement is a fine example of the
"linguistician's fallacy," a name I have the honor to introduce right now. I
first ran into it in grad school when I heard a new TA gleefully relating
how she'd told her freshmen that to follow advice provided by the
composition handbook was to enslave oneself to "The Man's etiquette," a
degrading charade that, unfortunately, they had to play out if they wanted
to get The Man's diploma. Right on! Power to the Pupil!

The linguistician's fallacy lies in the assumption (held almost exclusively
by some academics) that the "command of their own native language" that
people have from childhood is optimal for every nonconversational variety of

This assumption is incorrect. But - as usual - don't take my word for it. Is
it true that published writing in the language of any industrial society
exhibits merely the speech competence people unsonconsciously master in
childhood?  Obviously not. To say so is to say, for example, that lawyers
addressing juries, Presidents addressing Congress, Congressmen haranguing
each other and the public, and members of any profession providing
information to their peers exhibit only the stylistic skills they mastered
by the age of six or twelve or even eighteen. I'd like to see the evidence
that they do.

The linguistician's fallacy reduces multiple uses of language to that of
everyday, often imprecise and inconsequential conversation. It then claims,
without evidence and against the belief of every literate society we know
of, that that level is perfectly adequate for all situations.

I haven't looked into Strunk & White in decades. So for all I know the
authors really were authoritarian, pontificating weasels who didn't know
squat about grammar. But no pontificating could be more baseless than a
global claim that teaching clarity, flexibility, and effectiveness is a
waste of time, an assault on self-esteem, an unnatural act committed on
English, or anything else that the linguistician's fallacy usually implies.


On Tue, Apr 20, 2010 at 10:26 AM, Amy West <medievalist at w-sts.com> wrote:

> ---------------------- Information from the mail header
> -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Amy West <medievalist at W-STS.COM>
> Subject:      Pullum at MIT this afternoon
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> An MIT alum friend forwarded this to me:
> ---Amy West
> >
> >       Subject: TALK:Tuesday 4-20-10 The Land of the Free and "The
> Elements
> >of Style": How False Claims about English Grammar Do Actual Harm
> >
> >
> >       The Land of the Free  and  "The Elements of Style": How False
> Claims
> >about English Grammar Do Actual Harm
> >       Speaker: Geoffrey K. Pullum
> >       Speaker Affiliation: University of Edinburgh
> >       Host: Regina Barzilay
> >       Host Affiliation: CSAIL
> >
> >       Date: 4-20-2010
> >       Time: 4:00 PM - 5:00 PM
> >       Location: 32 G449
> >
> >       Language Log (www.languagelog.org) has fought a long battle
> against
> >       regarding "The Elements of Style" as a respectable work on using
> the
> >       English language.  But if some of what Language Log has published
> is
> >       perhaps somewhat bit hyperbolic (its authors were described in one
> post
> >       as "a shameless, pontificating, ignorant, hypocritical,
> incompetent,
> >       authoritarian pair of old weasels"), there are nonetheless some
> serious
> >       issues involved.  American writing instructors recommend "Elements"
> to
> >       their students despite its being astonishingly outdated;
> ludicrously
> >       idiosyncratic; unfollowable on some points (because of
> >self-contradiction);
> >       grossly and demonstrably inaccurate on points of syntactic fact;
> and
> >       actually mendacious in some of the ways it tries to make plausible
> its
> >       toxic brew of opinions and proscriptions.  Linguists should
> >take seriously
> >       the notion that such indefensible bossy advice about grammar
> >does actual
> >       harm, both by wasting resources and by promoting "nervous
> >cluelessness".
> >
> >       Relevant URL(S):
> >
> ------------------------------------------------------------
> The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

"If the truth is half as bad as I think it is, you can't handle the truth."

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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