Mind your peeves and cures

Blog comments don’t usually astonish me. Here’s an exception:

Growing up in the late fifties, I went to primary school in a small village in Co. Mayo and the teacher had her grammatical pet hates – the chief ones were the common “I done it” and “S/he does be/I do be”. Present it in an essay and the offense was actually cut out of the copy and the offender sent out to the garden near the turf shed at the back of the school, with a shovel…I kid you not. Some poor unfortunate classmates found the humiliation of holes on the pages of their copies worse than the burial process. I do be anxious even now, fifty years later when I recall it

There’s a world of difference between advising children to mind their Ps and Qs and sending them outside to bury examples of non-standard expressions in a hole in the ground. The former is essentially figurative and gently instructive; the latter is intensely physical and apparently pathological, a cruel and unusual punishment. In my response I described the teacher as a quintessential peevologist: that is, one who indulges in peevology, albeit an extreme example of the type. These are new terms for an old avocation. Mr. Verb and commenters have outlined how the word peevology came about — from Jan Freeman’s original peeve-ology, based on Ben Zimmer and others’ peeveblogging — while John E. McIntyre has offered a succinct and helpful definition:

peevology (n.) An analysis of faults, often imaginary, in language usage, arbitrarily pronounced by self-anointed experts, the analysis typically revealing rank prejudice and cultural bias.

I suspect that prejudice against the Irish language and its veiled re-emergence in Hiberno-English lay behind the Scissors & Shovel method described above. The methods may have changed but the attitude remains widespread today. We have, for example, what the NY Times described as Twitter scolds: Twitter users who feel compelled to criticise what they perceive as lapses in grammar, spelling, or style — many of which are not lapses at all, or are objectionable only to those determined to find petty fault. Peevologists go straight for the peeve, sometimes at the expense of facts, manners, and context.

But here’s a mild and inoffensive example: last week I wrote whimsically on Twitter that “Om nom nom” was omnomnomatopoeic. Although I don’t broadcast every fanciful portmanteau that occurs to me, I thought omnomnomatopoeic was worth sharing with its potential audience of portmanteauphiles. For the most part the response, where it occurred, was positive, but even the informally well-established “Om nom nom” incurred disapproval:

My request for an explanation went unheeded. Maybe the “travesty!” remark was just a joke — more about that below. (Edit: SpellingPatrol, “Friend to all”, has since unfollowed me. Oh well.)

Adopting a rigid and intolerant position on English usage guarantees frequent indignation. Maybe this is part of what motivates peeving. After all, what would a pedant (or stickler) do if there were nothing to be pedantic about? All that energy needs an outlet. As an editor I find pedantry useful, but only inasmuch as it is soundly and sensibly applied in designated contexts: I decline the indignation, the flaming torch, and the odd and anti-social compulsion to nitpick strangers’ offhand remarks and casual conversations. What pet peeves I have I keep in perspective and adjust according to circumstances and new information. This is not a new concept:

It is not the business of grammar, as some critics seem preposterously to imagine, to give law to the fashions which regulate our speech. On the contrary, from its conformity to these, and from that alone, it derives all its authority and value. (George Campbell, The Philosophy of Rhetoric, 1776)

To cling to strict and static notions about usage is to misapprehend what language is and how it’s used. As Mr. McIntyre put it, in a follow-up post about peevologist psychology, “English remains, like all other languages, what its speakers and writers collectively make of it.” What peevologists treat as eternal rules — to be imposed dogmatically on barbarians wantonly destroying the language — are generally just contemporary conventions, and sometimes dubious ones at that. Those who presume to advise or dictate on English usage would do well to cultivate a habit of analysing their biases, including the bias that they have no bias. (I addressed my own in an earlier post about prescriptivism and descriptivism.)

It’s natural for people to become attached to rules. The familiarity and apparent permanence of style-and-usage commandments make for easier decisions in writing, if not necessarily better writing, and there is psychological comfort in conforming to predictable standards and in deferring to authority, be it bogus or enlightened. As Arrant Pedantry has observed, “there’s a lot of social value in following language rules, whether or not they are actually sensible”. But belief in an ideal language, combined with over-reliance on, say, The Elements of Style or the AP Stylebook, can develop into a quasi-religious zeal complete with the urge to proselytise.

[Ozy and Millie in “Grammar Nazis” by D.C. Simpson]

This paragraph, and the next, are from a comment I left on Motivated Grammar a couple of months ago. (The post in question, like all the posts I’ve linked to here, is well worth reading if you’ve made it this far.) One of the frustrating things for some linguists and language specialists is the widespread assumption that if you are interested in grammar and usage, you must be fussy about it. When the subject appears in mainstream or popular media, for example, the comments often fill to bursting with pet peeves of wildly varying validity. Love of language seems to be commonly confused with anality about it.

Occasionally, someone will comment on my blog that they were self-conscious about making mistakes, even though I repeatedly point out that mistakes happen to everyone (myself included), that I don’t judge people by them, and that often they’re not mistakes anyway. I suspect that the reasons for these attitudes and intuitions are strongly social, with usage being a marker of social type or class, though only rarely is it recognised as such in public discourse.

Or, indeed, in education, though I think the use of scissors and shovels in school discipline has mercifully been abandoned.

Mark Liberman wrote that “the liturgical core of peevology is the ritual lamentation of lost causes.” Think of the pet stylistic hates that are listed by the tens or hundreds when grammar is discussed in popular media. Or the zombie rules inherited from misguided pedagogues: rules that are misleading, anachronistic, or wrong; often based, as Frank Palmer wrote in Grammar, “on Latin, pseudo-logic or pure invention”, and perpetuated en masse out of laziness, obedience, triumphalism, social anxiety and snobbery, automatic deference to tradition, and even sadism.

And still onward, outward and inward language grows, evolving constantly and unstoppably into countless wondrous forms and phrases, despite the stubborn tendency among peevologists to overlook or ignore this in their solemn pronouncements on acceptability, or more frequently unacceptability. The solemnity, incidentally, is sometimes masked by an I’m-just-joking-but-I’m-not-really exclamation mark, or a pseudo-ironic tone, which seems to be an attempt to lend the practice of peeving an air of friendly and ultimately benevolent helpfulness. With or without the mark, though, peeving is not helpful. But it is interesting.

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18 Responses to Mind your peeves and cures

  1. Fran says:

    Can’t believe that story about sending them out to bury their ‘mistakes’. Some teachers of that time had a lot to answer for.

  2. Bless Herself, whoever she is, she rounded off that comment very nicely.

  3. Stan says:

    Fran: It’s beyond parody. I wonder whether the teacher was being malicious or believed that the punishment was beneficial.

    PFW: She did. Herself is known to me, so I’ll pass on your praise and blessing.

  4. What to say… Some teachers were insane and some twitterers have no sense of humour!

  5. Yvonne says:

    I had a teacher whose pet peeve related to over-usage of the term “a lot” in history essays. He deducted marks for it as a matter of course until he had taught us not to either overuse it or condense it into one word (alot). Until he began his purge he got numerous essays about how “Hitler killed alot of Jews causing alot of anger at Nuremberg”. Mr Flynn also taught us, rather usefully, that you ought not condense the whole of WWII into five sentences.

    Correcting people about spelling or grammar on social networks seem to me to be rude and not merely pedantic. I would no more dream of correcting someone’s grammar on Twitter than I would someone sitting beside me in a pub or on the bus. Put in these real life social contexts, one can see how very rude such pedantry is. I would apply the same live-and-let-live criteria to any other hastily written form of communication that might be phone-based like texting or FB updates (fat finger etc).

    The language police are so busy keeping out the barbarians at the gate that they seem to forget that amongst the most glorious and pleasurable aspects of language is its elasticity, its potential for playfulness, its ever-changing face and its determination to be fit-for-purpose in the midst of the myriad platforms for human communication.

    There was a time when only the nobility, the clergy and the professions had access to literacy. Then when universal education arrived it was rather upsetting to see people from less salubrious backgrounds beginning to write or paint. There was nothing for it therefore but to evolve a theory of high art and low art, better education and lesser education.I believe that taste-policing of any kind has its roots in this artificial divide.

  6. wisewebwoman says:

    Living in Newfoundland, I am very close to the roots of Hiberno-English which has evolved into a form of speech that is musical, unique and evocative. It drove me a little crazy for a while, being a bit of a pedant (yes, moi!) but now I find myself so caught up, I spout it unconsciously much to the amusement of my Toronto friends who tell me I’ve gone all peasanty….needless to say I do be right flattered.
    And oh, I totally believe your Mayo friend. My scrawls on headline paper when I was 7 were burned with relish in front of the entire class.
    Try ‘splainin’ dat to de mammy ‘n daddy.
    XO
    WWW

  7. Stan says:

    Jams: Everyone acts insanely sometimes, but you’d expect more sense (or less craziness) from a teacher.

    Yvonne: Deducting marks for alot is certainly safer than what this teacher did. You make an important point that I hinted at in the final paragraph but might have made more explicit: language is fun, and its elasticity is central to this. Words are toys, and language is a game in a larger game. If you’re not enjoying it, there’s a good chance you’re doing it wrong (which wrongness has nothing to do with technical incorrectness).

    I’m also glad you mentioned access to literacy. Traditionally people got to feel superior to others through socio-economic difference, among other ignoble means. They still do, but status markers are less obvious online, so the play is recast as simple one-upmanship, with people itching to play “Gotcha!” with each other’s prose instead of, for example, reassessing their priorities.

    WWW: Your teacher burned your writing!? Wow. Was this a common occurrence, and how was it done? I mean, were the flames contained in a bin or sink, or did it constitute a fire hazard?

    I remember hearing a schoolboy refer to another kid as a “peasant” in such a way that his pejorative intent was very clear. I was quietly shocked, not least because he came from a “good Catholic family” (the connection seems much less incongruous now). I had encountered the word peasant before but thought it synonymous with working class, especially rural working class, but without any implied judgement.

  8. herself says:

    Thanks Stan for facilitating that interesting discussion following my disclosure of schooldays abuse – that is how I now see it in these more enlightened (?) times. As for your query about malice or benefit, it might clarify if I contextualise as follows: this same teacher used a very heavy, very long flat stick – we are talking about a time when corporal punishment was used freely and often gleefully in schools. When asking a question (in whatever subject) and getting a wrong answer, she slapped the errant pupil and then continued around the class, slapping each pupil in turn until someone (whose terror overcame their inability to think clearly) came up with the correct answer. Ah yes, glory days indeed! While I like the “peevology”of it, it doesn’t quite sum up the viciousness of it.

  9. wisewebwoman says:

    Gee Stan:
    Fire hazard? I didn’t get into the drama of it but here you are:
    The contents of the metal trashcan were dumped all over the floor. Your awful and unacceptable work was thrown into the can, she set fire to it. We all watched the flames. The good kids nudged each other and tittered at you. This was encouraged. We waited until it was cold.
    It was your job then to pick up the dumped rubbish and put it back in the can. And then go stand at the back of the class.
    Those were the days when if a kid threw up in class the excretion was left on the floor and the kid wallopped for the sheer brazenness of doing it on the floor when she could have made it to the solitary bathroom 2 miles down the hall.
    I’ve often said that those teachers (and the parents) would be all locked up in today’s world.
    XO
    WWW

  10. Stan says:

    Herself: Thank you for inspiring it in the first place. Although I drew the subject towards everyday peevology, your story was, as I wrote above, an extreme example. It’s difficult to imagine what it was like, because I never had a teacher who bullied and abused students like that. Yet she seems typical, in a way, of a certain mindset that is fixated on false notions of what’s right, but fails to notice how far she has strayed from decent human behaviour. I suppose these times are more enlightened in some ways and no better in others.

    WWW: That sounds nasty and cruel. Amazing, that people made responsible for children would be so lacking in compassion and kindness. Children are very vulnerable to mistreatment, and should be entitled to learn without having to endure such spiteful brutality.

  11. absurdoldbird says:

    I detest ‘om nom nom’ but must remember ‘omnomnomatopoeic’ to describe it – that’s brilliant!

    I’ve some problems with language usage (well, English, anyway) having been very good at it and then lost a lot of ability through the side effects of a prescribed drug I took for 18 months. The ability’s not all returned, but while I’ve been waiting for it to return (all assuming it ever will… or should that be ever does?) I’ve been having fun with the language in other ways.

    ‘Om nom nom’… what is it about this that offends my senses? I haven’t yet come to terms with the fact that this has superceded ‘yum yum’.

    Burying words is appalling. Though I suppose that it might teach the worms to read…

  12. Stan says:

    Absurdoldbird: Welcome, and thanks for your comment. Yes, maybe that’s where bookworms come from! If it’s any consolation, I don’t think om nom nom has superseded yum yum. I’ve never spoken the former, except when referring to it, but I say yum (and yummy) on occasion. There are also intermediate or combining forms like nyom nyom. Maybe if you had grown up with om nom nom, you would now be resistant to yum yum! Sometimes I just decide to get used to new forms and usages that I initially rejected, whether or not I go on to use them in my own speech or writing. It makes for more peaceful reading and listening.

  13. Ana says:

    Well said, Mr. Carey! The good thing about being scolded by the Spelling Patrol is that it has accelerated the writing of this post. Thank you.

    Party of one..
    Although the anecdote on burying holes as penitence for grammar faults seems odd or inappropriate at first, I have to admit I find some strange value in the ritual. [don't hate]. There’s something symbolic, and cathartic about it, that could be applied to unique areas or disciplines. I see it as something like burning a pile of things at the end/beginning of each year to disassociate yourself from psychological baggage, and start anew. And I mostly think of it as something [I ] would carry as a personal practice. [But who knows, I might not be a teacher/peevist, but that wouldn't stop me from being a sadist! Oy. (insert sarcasm) ]

    I agree with Mr. McIntyre, and I’m pleased to read your perspective. I feel enlightened and somewhat relieved to learn you stand for a more organic evolution of language. Context does play an important role (in everything) in my opinion. Although I have to admit that as an artist, educator, and someone who is not a native speaker of the english language, it is a daily struggle to find oneself often in the middle of two positions – between peevists and the non- , often not knowing which team to join. This especially happening when encountering such an array of of artistic expressions found in contemporary music(e.g. rap), poetry, and text in the visual arts.

    In the future, I would like to read and learn more about this and your personal opinion about a lot of the text which circulates in the artistic sphere.
    For now, I feel ‘secretly’ pleased as if I’ve been given permission to be “bad”.

  14. Stan says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful reflections and kind words, Ana. I agree that as a ritual it’s strongly symbolic — cutting and burying anything tends to be. But I don’t see it as cathartic, though it has a superficial resemblance to the purges you describe. This response on Twitter might interest you.

    Comparing languages with living organisms is almost a cliché, but for good reason. The great biologist Dobzhansky said that “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”, and this applies to language too. Expecting a language to stay the same is misguided; demanding that it do so is preposterous. The more dogmatically a rule is argued for, the more questionable it probably is.

    Peevologists tend to be inconsistent in their choice of peeves. I don’t think they could be otherwise. You don’t have to join a team — there are as many positions as there are participants. You can take the middle path of moderate, sensible, informed fussiness. You’re right that context is critical, and this is why the merits of a particular usage are best assessed on a case-by-case basis.

    By the way: as a non-native speaker, you write admirably well. Go be bad.

  15. Faldone says:

    If you can’t control your peeves you shouldn’t be keeping them as pets.

  16. Stan says:

    Faldone: Your counsel is as sound as it is unheeded.

  17. [...] variations are necessarily inferior, if not abominable. This bias is characteristic of organised peevologists. Mrs Williams** laments: “Successive governments have changed the rules about teaching grammar in [...]

  18. [...] I agree with the “usually” bit. I’ve ranted along these lines before — such as in this post about peeving and its possible motivations, where I investigated the odd and anti-social compulsion to nitpick [...]

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