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.