This is a short book, barely long enough to count as a book. But its importance is substantial. It’s one of the many books that have been written to alarm readers about the increase of bad writing, or non-writing, in the English- speaking world. It also addresses itself, however, to more fundamental questions: what is good writing? How can you tell? And what is lost when the quality of writing and speaking declines? This reviewer doesn’t always agree with what the little book says. But it brings up most of the issues that ought to be considered.
The book consists of three essays, the first by Christopher Ricks (as of June, Sir Christopher Ricks), a British literary critic who teaches in America, the second by Jim McCue, a British journalist, and the third by Bryan Garner, an American editor and legal educator. So this is not a provincial or merely academic book. Its concerns are broad. It argues that an inability to understand grammatical structure and to master traditional standards of diction is damaging to people’s capacity to think and communicate on the level necessary to maintain a free and rational society.
Awful portents abound, and eagerly related by our authors:
The British National Audit Office reports that after 125 years of compulsory public schooling, “almost half the population is not properly lit~rate.”
Investigators sent by the Royal Literary Fund into the British universities find themselves “shocked by what they found. Yet [they] themselves [are] not immune, the first page of their muti- authored report saying that not enough attention was being paid by those ‘with the real power to affect change.'”
An “intellectual” program on British radio features the reading of a Philip Larkin poem heaping scorn on the government; the program interprets Larkin’s sarcasm as praise.
America’s own Tom DeLay opines: “Two years of [Nancy] Pelosi gives a good idea of what four years of Hillary [Clinton] will be like.” Ignore the singular-plural disjunction (years-gives). Has Republican DeLay thrown in the towel and determined that Mrs. Clinton will be president? No, that’s not what he meant; but that is what he said.
Reporting on recent intellectual labors, “the head of the English Department at a reputable university [writes], without irony, ‘John Kerrigan’s monumental new study fills a much-needed gap.'” Well, luv, so’d Bill Shakepeare’s stuff, din’t it?
A high-ranking British official announces that in Northern Ireland, “one in five Catholics is now a serving police officer,” thus conjuring images of nuns and altar boys doubling as cops on the beat. What he meant to say was that “one in five police officers now is a Catholic,” which isn’t quite so big a deal.
Another lofty Brit declared, “We have made improvements” in something or other, “and we11 go on furthermore.” Yes, yes – go on! Furthermore! He also declared, “You can’t be a leader without getting your nose dirty.” Or at least your prose. But Gladstone and Disraeli must have written in vain.
And, back on these shores, Alan Greenspan opines, “I do not question that central banks can defuse any bubble.” Not pausing to notice Greenspan’s atrocious mixed metaphor (bubbles being defused like bombs), McCue remarks, “Who . . . could be sure what this meant … Did he mean [the banks] could, or they couldn’t?” And he adds, “Can anyone doubt that misunderstanding at this level could be catastrophic?” I don’t doubt it – and I’m sure that Greenspan’s mentor, Ayn Rand, would have had his hide for this, even before she had his hide for his economic policies.
As the authors of “The Latest Illiteracy” insist, the ability to think in any complex way is dependent on the ability to use words, either in communicating with others or in communing with oneself. Are the exalted leaders who came up with some of the statements I’ve just quoted any more fitted for intellectual tasks than the people who go online to say of themselves,
If your word for “write” is “rite,” it may be that you don’t understand what a “rite” is, and you probably shouldn’t be riting.
“Live in Manceser,” “Studyin physhcology but wanta be a lawyer,” and “I like 2 rite songs (b4 u ask there crap) friends are the most important things to me above a thing my friends are like my family, ill do anything for them”?
Most of today’s public figures write somewhat better than that, or get other people to write better for them. But how many of them have even a basic conception of the rules of grammar and usage? Not many. Yet these rules, these so-called conventions, are human beings’ methods of ensuring that words and thoughts have definite meanings and definite, meaningful relationships with one another. McCue puts it this way:
Knowing the difference between a noun and a verb means having a way to think, and being able to distinguish an abstract noun or a transitive verb enables those thoughts to be refined. Grammar is a complex rational system which has evolved to order our thoughts and help us to explain our- selves to others, and it is not optional. Without it, we could not process ideas, know what they mean or test their validity.
In short, “grammatical codes . . correspond to the facts of the world and the relationships between things.” The same can be said for codes of diction and spelling, ·even the weird-looking codes of spelling in English. If your word for “write” is “rite,” it may be that you don’t understand what a “rite” is, and you probably shouldn’t be riting. And if you’re fond of saying
things like “the implementation of a progressive social/economic platform will assure every person their political/economic needs,” what can I say to you? Probably you’re a college professor, but certainly you have no experience in connecting words with things. It’s obvious that your inability to decide whether your “platform”· is social and economic or social or economic means that you don’t know what you’re talking about, and that no one should ever listen to your advice. No one, that is, except illiterates like you.
“Illiterates”? Yes. Even college professors should be pronounced illiterate, when evidence indicates that they haven’t mastered the written language. And how much credence should we give to an illiterate’s pronouncements on our “political/economic” needs?
All right. But here I need to stipulate that this argument about thoughts, words, and politics can be pressed too far. “Our [political] masters,” says McCue, “cannot read the manual that we inherited for a free society.” And neither, according to him, can their subjects. As a result, or a corollary, “from top to bottom, society has fractured, and instead of the old rules, principles and manners, we are kept in place by ever greater surveillance and ever more dictates as to what we must and must not do, eat, drink, wear, spend, say, think.” This is plausible, but overstated. It isn’t mainly illiteracy that inflates the size and force of government; it’s the power-lust of the “master” class and the narrow self-interest of the “SUbject” class, which is disgustingly willing to surrender freedom and future prosperity for immediate and particular rewards. Lenin was perfectly literate; so was Hitler, and so were many of their followers. It didn’t help.
But the defense of a free society, especially against the attacks of literate (or technically literate) people, does require a fairly high standard of literacy. An illiterate can sometimes organize a mob, yet no one who hasn’t read and thought with some precision can convince other people that their long- term interest lies in contract and cooperation, not force and obedience. Every society has some kind of authorities. The question is, will these authorities be respected, or feared? Will their influence be exerted through rational per-
suasion, or through superstition and organized violence? If our choice is persuasion, then we should guard the means of persuasion carefully – and those means are almost entirely linguistic. While we’re doing so, well need to look carefully at the nature of language and linguistic change, so as not to throw away our own best arguments about the rational functions of language.
That would be a terrible sin, and Garner commits it – unthinkingly, though with great emphasis – while discussing his own means of judging whether we ought to keep old expressions alive or to welcome new ones. He believes that new expressions should be accepted when their use has become almost universal. Well, fine. I won’t struggle to maintain “forsooth,” or to keep”auditoria” as the plural of “auditorium.” But that’s not saying much. In virtually every sentence I write, I still have to choose among an enormous array of current expressions, many of them meaning roughly the same thing. “To be, or not to be – that is the question” could be replaced with “There’s a question in my mind about whether it’s best to keep myself alive or go ahead and commit suicide right now.” That’s not ungrammatical; it’s just not as good as the original. Well, why? Garner won’t say. I will, in a moment. But first I need to quarrel with him over his deepest assumption about language.
Garner tries to explain language as a· process of “evolution”:
The forces of natural selection are every bit as much at work in living languages as they are in the rest of the natural world. Over time, words and phrases mutate both in form and in meaning, sometimes through useful innovation and sometimes through unconscious drift and pervasive error. Usually the mutations don’t survive, but occasionally a change proves meritorious and ends up becoming a part of the standard language. That happens only if it’s fit enough to survive- as a part of the natural selection that takes place in every language.
This is wrong, and seriously wrong. Notice that Garner has not defined I’meritorious,” or the process by which merit is assessed. Notice also that language is not part of “the natural world.” It is part of the human, manmade world, and it responds, not to random, Darwinian processes, but to human choices, good or bad. A society in which people are educated to attend to their choices of words more carefully than Mr. Garner has attended to his choices in the passage I quoted will strongly resist mere “mutations” – almost all of which, as any evolutionary biologist will tell you, are detrimental to the organisms they affect. Conscientious writers identify and reproduce expressions that are more precise, more memorable, more emotionally evocative than competing expressions, particularly those generated apparently at random, in the consciousness of people who don’t care about words to begin with. And in the long run, thank God, writers who are conscious of their stylistic choices are much more likely to leave a mark on the language than writers who proceed by random.
Modern English prose style was invented in the late 17th and early 18th centuries by people who were seek- ing greater clarity and efficiency than prevailed in the current baroque style. Compare the prose of Milton with that of Dryden (who, it has been said, almost invented the paragraph), or with the perfected style of Addison, who was chosen as the model of good writing by several generations of influential people in the 18th century (see Franklin’s “Autobiography” for a long account of his careful imitation of Addison and his buddy Steele). That’s why the new way of writing caught on, and stayed. Darwin has nothing whatever to say about matters like this. If you must use the evolutionary metaphor, call it evolution by intelligent design. Ours.
When someone pronounces “a plague on both their houses,” or discerns “the mark of Cain” on someone else, or refers to mankind inclusively as both “the quick and the dead,” that person is reproducing the most potent literary influences on our language – Shakespeare, the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer. The language of those books was hardly the product of Darwinian evolution or unintended mutations. Nor is there anything accidental about its continued reproduction in a world in which most people do not read the Bible, fewer people have read “Romeo and Juliet,” and practically nobody is an old-language Episcopalian. Useful expressions are invented and preserved by people who think about language and care about language.
It’s noteworthy that most people who read the Bible today rely on a contemporary translation, because the language of the King James Version has too many hard words, and readers have been sold on the idea that “the Bible was originally written in the language of the common man.” Well, no, it wasn’t. The poet Isaiah doesn’t speak the language of the common man, and neither does the theologian St. Paul. It should be interesting to people who believe in the Darwinian evolution of our language that during the past century hundreds of modern-English versions of the Bible have appeared, and some of them have become very popular, but none of them have added a single phrase to the English language.
I won’t deny the fact that every morning millions of linguistic mutations are generated from the internet’s life-giving slime, and some proportion of the millions survive. It’s my sorry duty to act as their zoologist in the monthly installments of Liberty’s Word Watch column. But why do they survive? Here’s my own metaphor: this is what happens to a disease when there are few qualified physicians to treat it, and when practically nobody believes in the usefulness of vaccination. “The Latest Illiteracy” provides copious evidence – in case you needed it – that the people appointed to be physicians of the language – the writers, teachers, professors, and parents – have mostly abandoned their operating rooms and offices and have retired to Boca Raton.
The authors of “The Latest Illiteracy” are especially severe on the linguists of the past generation, and justly so. These people decided, for some reason, to study language in only its narrowest definition. Aggressively uninterested in judgments of quality, they saw language as a series of “linguistic events,” none of which was better than any of the others. They regarded people who wanted to assess the quality of language as “pedants,” “reactionaries,” and imbecilic”conservatives.”
The most influential culprits were the mass communicators – politicians, journalists, television pooh-bahs, and entertainers who couldn’t shine the shoes of Irving Berlin. A humbler, more insidious role was played by the professional teachers of English composition. Among them, a wonderful idea appeared, an idea that exempted both them and their students from any critical thinking about language. The idea was this: the only way to get students to write is to stimulate them to write a lot, making no judgments of quality that might possibly damage their confidence. Of course all that could result from this was the reproduction and reinforcement of any random mutations that crept into the students’ prose, but nobody in charge ever thought of that.
But there is another idea, an idea so obvious that you would expect it to occur to everyone. Yet even the estimable authors of “The Latest Illiteracy” find it difficult to state. Here it is: language is not just a method of communicating; it is not just a method of getting elected telling your customers what you think about the new Model 81 Widget or letting your daughter know that she shouldn’t play in the street. Language is a way of creating pleasure.
To put this in another way: language is an art. It doesn’t exist just to help us obtain what we want; it exists to give us joy, the kind of joy that we derive from good music, good painting, a well-played baseball game, or a magnificent deduction in theology. That’s why it has to be learned and cultivated
Language is not just a method of communicating. Language is a way of creating pleasure.
and criticized and also defended from people who can’t hear the music or see the pigments or be bothered to learn the rules. And that’s why “To be, or not to be – that is the question” cannot really be replaced by “There’s a question in my mind … ”
That revised version is boring. There is nothing to it, nothing but “information”; but the first version thrills us – if we consent to be thrilled – and why? Because of its unsurpassable concision. The vast field of metaphysical speculation, the emotions we all feel when confronting an ultimate decision, the urgent choice that the speaker himself is facing – both the small and the large are precisely determined and climactically summarized by those ten words, “To be, or not to be – that is the question.”
The same might be said of the brilliant passage beginning, “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” Here again we have the thrill of seeing the infinite reduced to a few words, small and plain. Jefferson and his friends could have written, “Those of us who are here today, representing the great people of the United States, yet conscious of the necessity to express, in our own words, the political philosophy that has inspired us to announce the beginning of a new nation, have agreed on a number of political principles, which we believe can be accepted by all men who are not blinded by prejudice or misled by custom.” Most other 18th-century writers would have said exactly that. The 18th century was, perhaps, the finest era of English writing; but good writing is not the product of history or historical evolution; it’s the creation of individuals. The Declaration of Independence isn’t a period piece; it’s the work of brilliant writers who would stand out in any literary culture. The meaning of version 1 and version 2 is roughly the same. The difference is that version 2 provides no aesthetic pleasure. That’s not a problem for you? Then I’m sorry – you’re illiterate; you don’t know about writing; go away.
I insist that this aesthetic pleasure is also an educated pleasure. An uneducated person will read the opening lines of the Declaration without having any idea of why it’s good writing. Someone has to teach people to notice the distinction between Jefferson and (Jesse) Jackson, Biden and the Bible, Eliot and Eminem, just as someone has to teach people to notice all the astonishing things that Mozart or Andrea del Sarto achieved. To say that appreciation for good language is an educated pleasure doesn’t detract from the significance or intensity of1the pleasure. Even the teenage bloggers who “like 2 rite songs” are interested in discovering some distinctive pleasures in words; the difficulty is that they’re content to realize that their words are “crap,” without understanding why.
So, once more: who’s responsible for this? The individuals themselves, primarily. Most people are preoccupied with other things than the improvement of their linguistic taste. Nevertheless, we have some right to expect that society, to which we sacrifice so much, should do more than it does to promote a basic understanding of words and how they work.
In “The Latest Illiteracy,” the major institutional blame falls on government schools. Every month, Gary Jason provides readers of Liberty with fresh information about the failures of these schools and the means of ending their predominance in our culture. He’s right, and I won’t poach on his territory. 111 just mention the fact that the authors of “Illiteracy” demonstrate how far government schools are from fulfilling their promise to give life and light to all who live. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that students who have spent 13 years eating pabulum should turn to Obama for hamburger and fries.
But suppose you wanted to teach someone how to respect language and use it effectively? What thoughts should guide teachers of writing and reading, whether they work for private or government schools or are “merely” concerned parents? Why should they have any concern for linguistic and aesthetic standards?
Much of this field is covered, one way or another, by a passage that Garner quotes from T.W.H. Holland (1967). “Why not,” Holland asks, accept illiterate language as “sound usage,” and say it ourselves? “I suppose,” he continues, lithe only good reply is that people who use the language in a way we think good do not say it.”
This is not an auspicious start. It’s a fine example of the circular reasoning that too many conservative language advisers employ: the standard of the good is the language that good writers use. No wonder modern illiterates and their academic defenders regard these conservatives as nattering nabobs of negativity.
But Holland soon takes another tack. “This may be middle-class or upper- class snobbery,” he admits, and it certainly sounds like that, “but it is also the defense of those who care about the clear and agreeable use of language, who value the power of making distinctions [that] are necessary or helpful.” Finally he’s found a good way of putting the matter, a way that takes in both the practical and the aesthetic function of writing and draws attention to the role of human interest in giving our common language the healthiest “evolution” possible. Good language isn’t just what certain classes of people happen to say or write; it’s what people who care about language, people who value its usefulness and pleasure (“agreeable use”), find reason to emphasize in their speech and writing.
This isn’t a middle-class thing, and it certainly isn’t an upper-class thing.
The linguistic habits of the British aristocracy have been a joke for 400 years. The linguistic habits of America’s current upper class – bankers, stock jobbers, movie people, top-level bureaucrats, and their endowed descendants, wretched creatures that they are – are even funnier. And as an academic, I can testify that it isn’t an academic thing, either; college professors write much worsethan…uh…well…I can’t think of a group that doesn’t write better than we do. And good language isn’t any more dependent on dialect than it is on class. Every dialect has its own rules, and a good speaker of English should be able to appreciate both the style of Macaulay and the style of “The Big Rock Candy Mountain.”
The preservation of sound speech and sound writing is a job for every- one – everyone who is willing to think about language, everyone who is willing to weigh all possible expressions
that may be useful in a given instance and to choose, on rational grounds, the expressions that are most “agreeable” and effective. This means it’s a job for teachers and parents, merchants and farmers, convicts and judges, nuns and computer geeks; it’s a job for whoever (to paraphrase the Bible) teaches with rational authority, and not as the academic scribes.
It’s especially a job for libertarians. Libertarianism was largely the creation of writers (good writers, too): Isabel Paterson, Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, and others going back to Jefferson, Macaulay, and Milton themselves. It is inconceivable that a libertarian society could exist in an illiterate culture. And it is inconceivable to me that a libertarian society could exist without joy- yes, the joy of freedom, but also the joy of art. All great writing is great art, and the people who are eligible to create and enjoy it are you and me.