Why So Much Anger Over Usage?

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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.

There isn’t.

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.

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18 thoughts on “Why So Much Anger Over Usage?”

  1. I got into the habit of correcting grammar while we had some international students staying with us who wanted to know when they’d made mistakes. Now I hear and read solecisms everywhere I go, and sometimes it’s difficult to just ignore them.

    In school we were never taught any formal grammar (not even what an adverb was). For a while now though, I’ve wanted to learn about grammar in detail (which is why I read blogs like these). I feel that English is very powerful for expression when you can use it properly.

  2. Hey, I enjoyed this post.

    People thinking they are in temporary control is outrageous, especially were language is concerned with it’s dialects as you pointed out.

    Like you I invite any and all constructive criticism but please everyone don’t pass your frustrations along to me. I have plenty thank you.

  3. “Perhaps the people who get so angry when discussing language imagine there’s such thing as “real” English.

    There isn’t.”

    From the woman who wrote “50 Incorrect Pronunciations That Will Make You Look Dumb”?! Give me a freaking BREAK!

  4. I have to admit to being one of the angry brigade when it comes to language – as anyone who reads my blog will know!

    But what riles me isn’t so much a misplaced apostrophe or an inability to grasp the finer nuances of the semi-colon. It’s the increasingly common use of language to deliberately deceive, dissemble or evade. I think we should all be alert to the many euphemisms in political life and the corporate nonsense that is deliberately designed to pull the wool over the eyes of some hapless consumer or employee. Defending clear, correct prose is, for me, about holding those in power to account.

    On a related point, I am pretty angry at the poor state of spelling, grammar and syntax among so many people, too. But I’m not angry with them – I’m angry with a system that’s let them down.

    I don’t know what it’s like in the US, but in the UK there was a deliberate decision made to dumb down English teaching several decades ago, based on the idea that grammar is irrelevant. But, of course, the same people who made that decision had themselves benefited from a good education in their native tongue.

    Take away people’s ability to understand, analyse and express themselves in their language and you take away their ability to question the politicians and powerful corporations who use language to deceive, dissemble and evade . . .

  5. As someone interested in linguistics, I find all the nit-picky arguments over proper spelling, pronunciation, punctuation, etc. almost comical. The whole idea of language is to communicate, and as long as that is being done effectively, why does it matter if someone uses a comma in a slightly different way than you?

    I can understand asking for clarification when differing usages makes something ambiguous, but I hardly see a reason to criticize or lecture. Doing that generally causes resentment, and that is certainly not conducive to communication.

  6. Please. When people use the word “sale” as a verb when “sell” needs to be used, they are indeed deserved of a bashing. Can’t tell you how many times I see “I am saleing a XXX for $25″…from alleged native speakers of English.

  7. Anon,
    I don’t claim that the pronunciation post was one of my most carefully-written. If I had to do it again, I’d change some of the phrasing to make my intentions clearer.

    The headline you quote was not my idea; I immediately requested that it be changed and it was.

    My prejudices do show in a few of the entries, vehicle for example, and perhaps medieval and clothes. For the most part, however, you will find the pronunciations targeted in that post singled out for criticism on a great many other sites.

    Give me a break. I try to avoid out-and-out pronouncements that can’t be backed up by reliable, respected language sources. Now and then I make an assertion based on nothing more authoritative than my own opinion. As one reader pointed out, this is a blog. I do my best.

  8. Watching a bit of television will confirm for anyone that derision and disdain have become the latest cultural fad. Judging others is sport. It’s seen as witty. Ahh, but for a kinder, gentler nation…

  9. I enjoyed this post, too. Thanks, Maeve, for raising the topic.

    I admit that I am a recovering grammar snob. But I saw the light several years ago when I was taking a course in basic linguistics and learned about descriptivism and prescriptivism. I now see the folly and futility of many of my protests (though I’m still known to go on an occasional rant). 🙂

    I respect the language, and I love grammar. But, life’s too short….

  10. I can relate somewhat to people who get angry when they encounter incorrect grammar or spelling, but I don’t usually say anything about it. It’s not my responsibility to keep people from showing their ignorance.

    But what DOES drive me around the bend, and what spurs me to speak up, is when I’m forced to make those mistakes deliberately. It drives me nuts. I build ads for a newspaper. Now and then when I’m typing out a customer’s ad copy, I’ll correct a spelling or grammatical error. Our sharp-eyed customer service rep will come to me and ask me to put it back the way the customer had it. I’ll resist. She’ll insist. In the end, I have to do as she asks because, presumably, she’s discussed it with the client and he wants it that way. The customer is always right.

    Yeah. Sure.

  11. English is a living language. French has police. What was acceptable then isn’t now. What is acceptable now, won’t be tomorrow. This is especially important to remember when one considers that the language is no longer in the hands of those who began to speak it. I work in an environment where English is the primary language, but practically nobody speaks it as a first language. If I spent my day trying to correct everyone’s grammar and spelling, I would be busier than I am now in the effort to understand what they are trying to tell me. So, I take a minimalist approach. If I don’t understand what they’ve written, I write back with the paraphrase and ask for comfirmation. Very humbly. It almost always works.

  12. Why do I think good spelling and grammar are important? Because when they’re done badly, clarity and meaning become confused, and in extreme cases lost altogether.

    On a personal note, I read quite quickly; when reading poorly written prose, I find myself failing to recognise mis-spelt words fast enough to allow me to maintain my flow. This detracts from both the efficiency of the communication and from my enjoyment of it (unless, of course, the error changes the meaning in an amusing way).

    Of course language has to evolve, but surely we can let it do so with some consistency?

  13. Ruth, I sympathize (and empathize) with your complaint–I work as a proofreader for a commercial printer.

    Generally, if I believe that clarity of meaning is compromised by the grammar, word order, choice of word used, spelling, or punctuation, I will continue to (gently and with an explanation) insist that it be changed. Usually I can offer an alternative wording to express what I believe the customer means–and often have been thanked.

    Our sales personnel are, however, always willing to actually ask the customer; and sometimes the “mistake” remains after the questioning, because, as you said, the customer is always right.

    HOW I approach the customer is usually the most important factor in whether that customer listens. This is the part of the equation I can control.

    That being said, perception and self-concept plays a large part in receptiveness, and in answering Maeve’s title question: if I believe that you are correcting me to attack my ability and make me look foolish, I will probably be angry with you. If, on the other hand, I believe that I am human (i.e., I make mistakes), and you are correcting me so I will NOT look foolish to those who see my printed piece (i.e., you are helping me), I will probably thank you! This addresses the part of the equation I can’t control when I offer a correction.

    It certainly makes life interesting at times!

  14. Cassie Tuttle, I agree with you completely. Taking a realistic (linguistic) look at language can be very eye opening. One book that I found very useful is Inventing English: A Portable History of the Language. It shows how the world of a “living language” really works.

  15. Oh yes, I know the angry ones well – they are the ones, fortunately few, who insist on pointing out every typo I make on my blog. Sometimes I have to walk away before I respond so I don’t start a flame war. But it always reminds me what a luxury good editing really is.

  16. Language belongs to people; that’s something that languages which have an “academy”(unlike yours) had to accept in order to include slangs in their dictionaries You who are mostly teachers,writers or both are passionate readers; therefore the misuse of your native language offends you, it happens to everyone, so you should encourage debates upon these topics it’s entertaining that’s why I keep on visiting this site.
    PS. I beg your pardon for any mistake you find.

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