Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Prerequisites for peeving

There oughta be a law, says Steven Pinker in Prospect Magazine, governing all the world's pundits:
No one may bemoan a decay, decline, or degeneration without providing (1) a measure of the way the world is today; (2) a measure of the way the world was at some point in the past; (3) a demonstration that (1) is worse than (2).
This decree would, first of all, eliminate tedious jeremiads about the decline of the language. The genre has been around for centuries, and if the doomsayers were correct we would now be grunting like Tarzan.
Unfortunately, it would take more than a global overlord to enforce this rule on the pundits' audience. I don't know if people complained less when times were tougher, but in our relatively comfortable society, there's plenty of energy for peeving. When I read Natalie Angier's piece on runaway altruism in the New York Times earlier this month, one bit seemed especially relevant to language scolds:
David Brin, a physicist and science fiction writer, argues in one chapter that sanctimony can be as physically addictive as any recreational drug, and as destabilizing. “A relentless addiction to indignation may be one of the chief drivers of obstinate dogmatism,” he writes. 
I don't know about you, but I have certainly enjoyed the sensation of knowing The Right Way in matters of editing. And though indignation can be a force for good, surely its power should be exercised on something more important than the comma?  As the linguist Dwight Bolinger memorably noted,* most language peeves are trivial both in linguistic and practical terms: "The same number of muggers would leap out of the dark if everyone conformed overnight to every prescriptive rule ever written."

*In "Language: The Loaded Weapon," Longman 1980, which I did not receive as a free review copy.


T. Roger Thomas said...

Have you asked them for a free copy?

Anonymous said...

Wonderful quotes, thank you. I can see myself re-quoting you later.