A few times since beginning to write for DWT I’ve had occasion to reflect on the question of what fuels the anger occasionally expressed in the comments.
One explanation I’ve come up with is that because language is so much a part of our identity, the criticism of usage or pronunciation may be perceived as a personal attack.
I could understand it more easily if all the anger came from speakers of nonstandard dialects. If a speaker identifies a specific usage or pronunciation with family and ethnic loyalties, the suggestion that something else is to be preferred might explain an angry response.
However, I don’t understand the fury of speakers of standard English who resort to profanity and ad hominem attacks on writers who disagree with them over such things as ending sentences with prepositions, splitting infinitives, or preferring one common idiom over another.
In a recent MSNBC article Diane Mapes interviews various people on the practice of correcting the language of others. Their remarks offer possible explanations.
In general, I think people are getting a little bit meaner about correcting others or sharing what they call their ‘observations,’ ” [Dale Siegel] says. “They’re uptight and stressed out about losing their jobs.”
Pauline Wallin, a clinical psychologist from Camp Hill, Pa. says
“When people are under stress, they have less tolerance for minor frustrations… Spelling is something concrete and has a definite right answer so it does make you feel temporarily in control.”
Wallin says that for some people, correcting others “could be a power thing.” She also observes that when we notice mistakes made by others, we do more than simply notice them. We tend to “pass judgement and assign blame.”
Attribution theory comes into this as well,” [Wallin] says. “My mistakes are caused by external circumstances, but others’ are caused by a lack of skill or a character flaw.”
Put any two language lovers together and they’re sure to disagree on something. We can talk about “standard usage” in a general sense, but we’ll never all agree as to particulars.
Perhaps the people who get so angry when discussing language imagine there’s such thing as “real” English.
Every language exists in the form of multiple dialects. So-called “standard English” is just one dialect among many. It’s an extremely useful vehicle of education, world commerce, and the transmission of a huge body of literature, but it is not morally superior to any other dialect of English. And it can never be defined to everyone’s satisfaction.
Here’s to civil discourse in the discussion of language! We ought to be able to disagree with one another without making moral judgments.
In the words of Petey Greene,
You talk like you got to talk to do what you got to do.
You can find the complete MSNBC article here.