Before embarking on a career in linguistics, Geoffrey K. Pullum could be found gadding about 1960s Germany playing piano for Sonny Stewart and the Dynamos (listed as “Jeff Pullem”) and later for Geno Washington and the Ram Jam Band (that’s him rocking the organ in this YouTube video). The stresses of life on the road led him to eventually abandon his musical career and instead pursue “the glamour and excitement of becoming a linguist.”
In the years since, in his classes and as a contributor to the popular linguistics blog Language Log, Pullum has engaged in battle with what he terms “prescriptivist poppycock.” On Feb. 12, he will deliver a free talk at Kane Hall (reservations are full, but there might be space for walk-ups).
The lecture is titled “The scandal of English grammar teaching: Ignorance of grammar, damage to writing skills, and what we can do about it,” but the scandal probably isn’t what you think. It’s not the shopkeepers advertising “Banana’s $0.99 cents” or even texting teens who are in Pullum’s cross-hairs; it’s “the rule-givers and knuckle-rappers and nitpickers” who have turned explorations of grammar into an extended game of “Gotcha!”
Have a problem with split infinitives? Does the singular “they” make you twitch? Do you get the vapors when you see a stranded preposition? Are you adamant that “between” can only be used when talking about two things, and “among” must be used for numbers greater than two? You may be a prescriptivist. Furthermore, you may be in the grip of what Pullum calls “Zombie rules:” dictates handed down from your English teacher—frequently invented by someone with a usage guide to sell—that have no basis in English as it is actually used.
Pullum, like most professional linguists, belongs to what is called—imprecisely and inexpertly—the “descriptivist” school of linguistics. Descriptivists are more interested in observing and describing language as it is actually used, rather than enforcing rules of “proper” usage (the purview of prescriptivists). According to descriptivists, grammatical nitpickers miss the point, interfere with clear communication, turn normally well-adjusted and perfectly competent speakers and writers into nervous wrecks and are, quite frequently, simply wrong.
It’s not that descriptivists believe that “if someone said something somewhere it must be correct”—a claim frequently leveled by prescriptivists—English has rules, and ungrammatical speaking and writing is still ungrammatical. It’s that these rules should not be imposed from personal prejudice, but derived from how words are used by people generally considered skilled at a language. If “they” can only be used as a plural, Pullum argues, then Chaucer, Shakespeare, the authors of the King James Bible, Swift, Byron, Austen, Carroll, Wilde, Orwell, and Stoker and countless others, whose writing is otherwise held in high esteem, are grammar nitwits. Or one can accept that Strunk & White’s much-beloved Elements of Style (which holds a special place in Pullum’s heart: see here and here) is wrong.
Heresy or common sense? Leave your opinion in the comments!