[lg policy] Subjects and Verbs as Evil Plot

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at GMAIL.COM
Fri Jan 14 15:37:31 UTC 2011

January 13, 2011
Subjects and Verbs as Evil Plot By CLYDE

Even before the Tucson
Jared L. Loughner<http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/people/l/jared_lee_loughner/index.html?inline=nyt-per>acted
weirdly and darkly in so many ways that singling out any one aspect
may defy sense. Nonetheless, for bizarreness, his rants about grammar stand
out.As Mr. Loughner has tried to explain it in Web postings, English grammar
is not merely usage that enjoys common acceptance. Rather, it is nothing
less than a government conspiracy to control people’s minds. Perhaps more
bizarre, even potentially troubling, is that he is not the only one out
there clinging to this belief. Some grammarians say they hear it more often
than you may think.

“It is completely off the wall,” said Patricia T. O’Conner, the author of
several books on grammar, including “Woe Is I.” “But I’m not actually that
surprised,” said Ms. O’Conner, who also writes a
grammarphobia.com, with her husband, Stewart Kellerman. “I get mail once in
a while from people who believe that it’s wrong to try to reinforce good
English because it’s some kind of mind-control plot, and English teachers
are at the bottom of this. For anyone to say that subject and verb should
agree, for example, is an infringement of your freedoms, and you have a
God-given right to speak and use whichever words you want, which of course
you do.

“But they see it as some sort of plot to standardize people’s minds and make
everyone robotically the same.” One person identified with this notion is a
Milwaukee man named David Wynn Miller, who prefers to render his name as
:David-Wynn: Miller and who says that people must free themselves of a
government he deems tyrannical. But Mr. Miller has distanced himself from
Mr. Loughner and rejected suggestions that his own online writings over the
years may have inspired the rampage in Tucson.

Of course, idiosyncratic grammar and punctuation, of themselves, are hardly
automatic signs of derangement. Nor are they confined to one point or
another along the political spectrum. Rappers have long gone their own way
when it comes to spelling names and putting thoughts into words. And the
idea that language can be used, and abused, to exert control is familiar.
Orwell, anyone? (In fact, on his YouTube page, Mr. Loughner listed Orwell’s
“Animal Farm” as one of his favorite books.)

But the Loughners and Millers take many steps closer to the dark side by
describing grammatical structure as proof of government wickedness.

Ben Zimmer, the “On Language” columnist for The New York Times Magazine,
said he, too, had received letters talking of a “grand conspiracy.” He got
them, in particular, when he was editor for American dictionaries at Oxford
University Press.

“When people are confronted with linguistic authority of various kinds,
whether it’s dictionaries or grammar books, the more conspiratorially minded
may use that as evidence of some grand scheme, or something where people are
pulling the strings behind the scenes and using language to do that,” Mr.
Zimmer said.

Ms. O’Conner said there is a flip side to the rejection of all grammatical
structure. It is slavish adherence to old rules and intolerance for any
perceived transgression.

She gets an earful, she said, when she writes that there is nothing horrific
about, say, splitting an infinitive or ending a sentence with a preposition.
For some people, those are heresies to always object to.

But it’s the more anarchic types whom Ms. O’Conner finds worrisome, those
who “think we’re all in cahoots — government, business, education, the
church — and it’s all one big conspiracy, and grammar is part of it.”
E-mails that she gets boil down to, “You’re part of this elitist attempt to
keep the masses down through language.”

Somewhat saddened by all this is Margaret
who teaches social studies at a middle school in Atlanta. In 1999, Ms. Edson
won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for her play “Wit.” Punctuation, notably
the centrality of the comma and the semicolon, is practically a character
all its own.

“If we weren’t teaching grammar as a way to bring the voices of our students
forward, for a redemptive purpose, then why teach, why live?” she said.
“We’re trying to bring their voices forward, not suppress them.”

“If you don’t have grammar, you don’t have sense,” Ms. Edson said. “You
don’t have one another. You can’t say ‘I love you’ without grammar.”

As the Tucson nightmare shows, however, you can express hate without it.

E-Mail: haberman at nytimes.com


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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