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 grammar in a hole in the ground. One is likely to be gently instructive; the other is intense, apparently pathological, even cruel. 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 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-and-shovel method described above. The methods may have changed but the attitude remains widespread. We have, for example, what the NYT 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, often at the expense of facts, manners, and context.
Here’s a mild example: last week I wrote whimsically on Twitter that “Om nom nom” was omnomnomatopoeic. I don’t broadcast every fanciful portmanteau that occurs to me, but I thought this one was worth sharing with other potential portmanteauphiles. Yet even the informally well-established “Om nom nom” incurred disapproval:
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 fuss about? All that energy needs an outlet. As an editor I rely on pedantry, but only inasmuch as it is sensibly applied in designated contexts: I reject the indignation, the flaming torch, the odd and anti-social compulsion to nitpick strangers’ offhand remarks and casual conversations. Pet peeves should be kept in perspective and adjusted 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 strictly to static notions about usage is to misapprehend what language is and how it’s used. As Mr. McIntyre put it, in a 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 often 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 a post about prescriptivism and descriptivism.)
It’s natural for people to become attached to usage rules. Their familiarity and apparent permanence 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 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 adapted from a comment I left on Motivated Grammar a couple of months ago. There is a 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 write in a comment here that they were self-conscious about making mistakes, even though I stress that mistakes happen to everyone (myself included), that I don’t judge people by them, and that often they’re not mistakes anyway. The reasons for these fears and intuitions are strongly social: usage can serve as 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 dozen 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, even cruelty.
And still onward, outward and inward language grows, morphing constantly into countless forms and phrases despite the stubborn tendency among peevologists to resist this or overlook it in their solemn pronouncements. The solemnity, incidentally, is sometimes masked by an I’m-just-joking-but-I’m-not-really exclamation mark or 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.