I received a link from friend and colleague Trent Kays to this article:
Williams, J. M. (1981). The phenomenology of error. College Composition and Communication, 32(2), 152-168.
(I UPDATED this post 11/22 with notes from Prof. Sihler below.)
It’s a good read, and points up a key problem: Self-appointed arbiters of writing style, unofficial state grammarians, and teachers of writing often feel compelled to point out errors in the writings of others. Unfortunately, an “error” may not really be one, because most readers would not react to it that way. And the grammar police themselves commit similar or identical errors in their own writing. For example, E.B. White, the much-worshipped sage of style for high school English teachers, is notorious for violating the elements of style in the Elements of Style, though his defenders will argue it ain’t so it until they are blue in the face (or would that be “blue in the faces”?).
1. I wish Williams had expressly articulated his claim in terms of rhetoric. What is appropriate style depends on the speaker/writer, the context, and the audience. These are the components of the rhetorical situation.
2. I teach grammar “errors” as rhetorical constructs. I often comment to students: “You may not want to say this as you have, because some readers will interpret it as grammatically incorrect, even though I understood it perfectly.” I intend this to give students choices. When they know that their readers would not welcome the subjunctive, they can “break the rules” and use the indicative; confronted with readers who value the subjunctive as a signal of status, they can demonstrate their knowledge of the rule, speaking the shibboleth their readers desire to hear; when unsure about the audience, they can draft to avoid the construction altogether.
3. I think always of my first linguistics professor, Andrew Sihler at the University of Wisconsin, who said (maybe the first day of class), “If a native speaker says it, and a native speaker understands it, it’s perfectly good English.” (See update below.) Of course, he said so in the context of descriptive linguistics, which theorizes about language as it is, not as it should be. But the prescriptivists often turn out to be just wrong, as Williams makes clear in this article.
Nice read! Thanks Trent!
After ‘quoting’ Prof. Sihler above, I thought maybe I’d see what he’s up to these days and check whether my quote was right. Of course, it’s entirely wrong. In addition to reporting that he’s retired and doing very well, Prof. S (or Uncle Andrew, as he sometimes referred to himself) wrote this:
Now, as to your question, well, I don’t think I would have said that anything immediately intelligible to a native speaker of English qualifies as “perfectly good English”. It might well be clearly English: say, Me Tarzan, you Jane is intelligible, and obviously English in the sense that the elements are all English, unlike say aham Tarzan, tvam Jane. “Headline English” is intelligible—usually—but “perfectly good English” is a bit strong. I once had a whimsical conversation with my late (and bitterly lamented) colleague Valdis Zeps, in which one morning I asked him, Where wife? He responded Wife not Madison. Wife Chicago. Proving that you can communicate just fine without the grammatical machinery of standard English, though I think few would call such utterances “perfectly good English”.
I’m not sure I’ve put your mind at ease on the matter you wrote me about. Linguists are often reproached with the charge that they (we) hold that anything anybody says is “grammatical”. That’s not the claim. The claim is that the status “standard” is established by usage. Not just an utterance here and there, but general usage. Thus, porte-cochere is commonly used in American English to mean a covered drive before a door. The term in French meant, however, a gate (porte) big enough to accommodate the passage of a carriage. As recently as the 1920’s, the Merriam-Webster Unabridged dictionary defines the expression thus, and adds that it is “often incorrectly” used to mean a covered drive. “Often incorrectly” is incoherent: anything used “often” with a consistent function can hardly be “incorrect”. It might be non-standard (ain’t, say), and some very common expressions grate on the ears of some, like consensus of opinion or using podium to mean “lectern”.
It’s just proof that I should not rely on my memory. Of course, my quote was rather obviously wrong in the first place. You’d think I would have concluded that a smart fellow like this would not have so oversimplified the matter. Still, it was nice to have an excuse to get back into touch with him after all these years.