Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Pavlovian peeving

While researching my next Word column, I ran across a two-year-old Language Log posting by Arnold Zwicky on the assertion (made by a Canadian newspaper)  that we cannot correctly say "standards of living increased," but only "standards of living rose." 

Not true, of course, but a surprising number of commenters were willing to defend the idea, or at least to chew over the ways it might be defended. This response inspired a comment from Language Hat that said what I too have thought (but ne'er so well expressed). I didn't have room to quote it in the column, so here it is: 
I don't know why this has never occurred to me before, but this discussion has made me realize that a mischievous person could pick any construction at random and denounce it just for the fun of watching the opprobrium spread across the prescriptivist world, or take two perfectly good English sentences and state authoritatively that one was correct and the other not and watch people fall all over themselves to provide justifications for the judgment. If you say one person or idea is better than another most people will form their own judgment and either argue or agree with you, but when it comes to grammar (or "grammar"), it seems there's a vast public eager to appropriate any proscription that comes within their ken, whether it makes sense or not. To err is human, to want to feel superior to other people's supposed errors is even more so.
Of course, if you take "mischievous" in its not-funny sense, you could argue that Dryden did just this when he disparaged the stranded preposition. It's hard to imagine him doing it out of pure cussedness, but considering how much needless trouble he caused, he might just as well have.


MelissaJane said...

I think you ought to try it! Next April Fool's Day, perhaps. A nice little column taking some obscure construction or phrase to task for its irregularity, supported by spurious and selective evidence - then track how long before it enters the peevologists' battery of standard complaints.

C Bailey said...

I heart the word peeve.

Jonathon said...

I once heard someone argue nearly the opposite; they said that you can't raise prices, because raising involves physical movement. You can only increase prices. I wonder what the original reasoning against using increased here was.

empty said...

In the same (June 2008) comment thread where LH makes that mischievous proposal, Mollymooly writes (presciently?):

"I am beginning to think a self-appointed Academy of English would be a good idea. Its prescriptions, and the minutes of the internal debates that produced them, would become the subject of general ridicule and universal flouting."