A few years ago when I read Grammar and Good Taste by Dennis E. Baron, I was surprised by the contempt with which the author, a linguist teaching at a university, spoke of language critics. I was aware, of course, of the ritual cursing of traditional grammar and grammarians by some writers of introductory books about modern grammar, but such outbursts usually appear only in the first chapter before strange diagrams proliferate. Baron’s animus, however, was expressed throughout his book. It seems to me that Baron, besides displaying an unfriendly attitude, gave an inaccurate picture of Edwin Newman (Strictly Speaking, A Civil Tongue), and that his treatment of other language critics was therefore suspect. Curious, I went ahead then to read most of the modern language critics and most of those who attacked them. (The attackers are chiefly professional linguists or people with some advanced training in linguistics.)

In the early days of my reading, I entertained the hope of weighing the merits of the two opposing sides, the strict critics on the one and the loose linguists on the other; of summing up virtues and vices; and of finally handing down my objective and well-reasoned decision, from which none could possibly dissent. Further reading undermined my hope and taught me that philosophies of both language and life were involved and that I was unlikely to reach a compelling decision.

I found that the language critics generally ignore their opponents, except for a sneer at structural or descriptive linguists who supposedly believe that anything goes in speaking and writing. The linguists, however, seemed much taken with purist-bashing. There are two books, one by Harvey A. Daniels and one by Jim Quinn, chiefly devoted to attacks on language critics; and, as one might expect, there are numerous articles and reviews in the same vein.

Immediately noticeable is how the linguists, most of them scholarly gentlemen or gentlewomen, call the language critics bad names. Some of their locutions seem to be preprinted labels. Often language critics are called “self-appointed guardians of the English language” (a phrase pleasing to Baron and to Daniels). Would the linguists prefer that critics be appointed by the government? And who appointed these scourges of the so-called purists? The flippant term “pop grammarian” was introduced by Quinn and then picked up by other writers. Baron calls language critics not only “self-appointed guardians” and “pop grammarians” but also “diehards,” “hard-core prescriptivists,” and “vigilantes.” Even the two fairest linguists can’t quite restrain themselves: Edward Finegan comes out with an occasional “language or grammatical guardian” and even “guru”; and Dwight Bolinger, while granting some value to language critics, classifies them as “shamans” who stimulate fear so that they will be called in to allay it.

Some may regard these terms as more witty than nasty. But what about Quinn’s use of “faddish know-nothings,” “petty nuisances,” “linguistic barbarians,” “professional busybodies,” and “yahoos”? Quinn thinks Newman’s books are successful because “the attitude of our society to language is just as intolerant, uninformed, prejudiced, and dumb.” Quinn, the self-proclaimed populist, means that the people’s attitude is as bad as that expressed in Newman’s books. (Quinn is not exactly a classy writer, a fact which is not hard to understand given his antipathy toward choiceness of language.) Showing that an academic can be just as wicked an infighter as the journalist, Ronald R. Butters, editor of American Speech, is pleased to denounce “the inanities of such know-nothing ‘pop grammarians’ as Edwin Newman, Theodore Bernstein, Wilson Follett, and especially that vitriolic, sophomoric poseur, John Simon.”

Also noticeable from this quotation is more than a hint of the special hatred linguists feel toward John Simon. Daniels calls him “poisonous,” as do other linguists, so that “the poisonous Simon” stands in the order of “the wily Odysseus.” Some linguists seem eager to remind us that Simon is foreign born, in Yugoslavia, and that, despite being educated as a boy in England and later in the United States, and receiving a Ph.D. from Harvard, he still speaks—or so they claim—with a foreign accent (Daniels). His not being native born explains, for some linguists at least, his supposed lapses in idiom and his conservative attitude toward language change. The honor roll of those exploiting this new and easy principle of argument includes Finegan and Quinn. A twist is added by Wallace W. Douglas, who opines that all is explained by Simon’s graduate education: “Except for the late Bergen Evans, I’ve never known a Harvard PhD in English, even from the old philological days, who knew beans about his own language.”

Because he has argued against the elimination of so-called sexist language, Simon receives a lot of attention from the linguist Julia Penelope (formerly Julia Stanley), whose recent published work on sexist language often seems to rely on anger for argument. In one article she fills five printed pages with vituperation against Simon, but somehow never gets around to examining his basic views of language and the reasoning behind his conclusions. To her it is enough to say that Simon is antifeminist and has “castigated” the National Council of Teachers of English and the Conference on College Composition and Communication for their “egalitarian frenzy.” He has even gone so far as to show, on one occasion, a lack of deference to “serious students of the English language like Dwight Bolinger.” “In short,” she writes, “Simon is a man whose ignorance is exceeded only by his arrogance.” Not a bad sentence; but then she adds the reference to Simon’s native language not being English.

All this blends with another bad intellectual habit of the linguists—the attribution of base motives and mean values to an opponent and the concomitant neglect of rational argument. Here, the linguists speak as one. They seem to base their opinions mainly on Charles Carpenter Fries’s 1940 identification of standard English as the dialect of educated professionals, that is, as merely social habit or insignia of class. But later writers such as Robert A. Hall Jr., Daniels, and Quinn go beyond Fries’s conception to indulge in populism; they denounce language critics for being undemocratic, elitist, snobbish, discriminatory, intent on maintaining class distinctions, mean-minded, and self-seeking. Language critics supposedly criticize certain locutions, not because they have any objective grounds, but because their personalities are warped.

With the exception, however, of Julia Penelope, linguists do at times offer some sound arguments to expose weaknesses in the language critics’ position. Relying usually on intuition based on their long experience, language critics sometimes do make errors that a little research could have corrected. Still, the linguists, priding themselves on their objective knowledge of language, often abandon themselves to subjectivity when showing up the language critics by neglecting the ordinary standards of evidence. Hall, who excoriates language critics and insists that Americans have been made insecure about their ability to speak and to write, cites no language critic and supplies no evidence. Customarily, Quinn’s evidence consists of isolated sentences from the Oxford English Dictionary, but he never tells the reader the precise section number in an entry for a word; as a result, to check his claims, one has to search through page after page of long entries, an especially blinding task for those of us who use the compact edition of the OED. Although he is commenting on American English and although he reproaches the language critics for not using dictionaries, he himself never refers to Webster’s New International Unabridged (2nd or 3rd edition). The Dictionary of American English (1938-1944), or A Dictionary of Americanisms (1951). At one point he laughs at Simon the traditionalist for using the latest educational jargon; perhaps, he slyly suggests, Simon’s use of the vogue word audit (as in “to audit a course”) will appear as an example in the next supplement to the OED. But if Quinn had been able to close his favorite, the OED, and open a copy of Webster’s Second, he would have discovered an entry for audit, presumably evidence that the word has been around for some 50 years.

Daniels, a professor of education with training in linguistics, also has rather careless ways of supplying evidence. In his third chapter, a historical survey of writers through the ages who have worried about the decline of language, only 16 references are from the text of the writer, while 61 are “cited by so-and-so.” Not only is Daniels probably unaware of the contexts of his brief quotations, he also makes it difficult for his readers to understand these contexts. So taken is Daniels by a Sumerian teacher of “writing” who complained 4,500 years ago about the poor ability of his students that he chortles over this several times. But he himself admits that the Sumerian’s complaint was about scribesmanship, or what we would call handwriting. Why chortle?

Even plain errors are frequent in some of these books, articles, and reviews by linguists. In a review of Quinn’s book. Butters gives Cornelia Evans the new first name of Candice. On a single page of a review article, Douglas renames Copperud (the language critic) Copperman (a critic of education) and uses the word stigmata as “honorable insignia.” Besides referring to the OED as a prescriptive rather than a descriptive dictionary, Quinn, berating Newman, reveals his belief that the following are derivatives, formed by adding -ize to the first morpheme of the word: realize (which was actually borrowed from the French réaliser); baptize (from the Greek baptizein); and capsize (which is of unknown origin, but probably not a derivative, since no one has ever discovered an entity called a caps to which ize could be added). At times Daniels implies that Arn and Charlene Tibbetts’ book was really written by one person. He believes that the two books published in 1870 and 1880 by Richard Grant White lack “linguistic sophistication” and that White was stupid to claim that English has no grammar, when all that White—like Sir Philip Sidney—meant was that English is not an inflected language like Latin or Greek. Baron, in his condemnation of Simon’s book, claims that Simon mentions no language critics writing before 1966; actually, Simon cites Eric Partridge and H.W. Fowler a total of nine times. All this fudging and fumbling suggests that attacking language critics temporarily obscures the judgment of some linguists.

Even more important, some major arguments employed by the linguists show deep weaknesses at closer examination. For example, linguists often attempt to refute a language critic’s condemnation of a locution by pointing out that it has a long history of use in the language. If Simon condemns the use of the pronoun form / when it functions as an object (as in to him and I), then Charles Suhor, Deputy Executive Director of the NCTE, refutes Simon’s opinion by referring to “the thoroughly respectable history of that usage, easily found in the Oxford English Dictionary, among other places.” (Unfortunately, the entry for I, section B.I.2, in the OED does not support Suhor.) Quinn more than once quotes Shakespeare’s “All debts are cleared between you and I.” Like used as a conjunction instead of as is uniformly defended by citing its use by Shakespeare or Keats. Double or multiple negatives are defended by quotation from Chaucer. Quinn also supposes that he has demolished Newman’s objections to the interjectional, parenthetical, or vaguely questioning You know? by giving apparent examples of its use since 1350.

This historical argument, however (if a locution was once used, even hundreds of years ago, it must still be good today), is worthless. The question still remains: Is the locution current or acceptable now in whatever situation we have in mind? If not, how can an archaism be correct? Anyone still using thee, thou, and shoures soote will be regarded as eccentric. Grammar and usage have become regularized since the Renaissance, especially in the edited written language, the grapholect. As the OED observes about me as grammatical subject: “This was very frequent in end of 16th and 17th c[entury], but is now considered ungrammatical.” Follett concludes from the 50,000 examples in Jespersen’s multivolume grammar that “a precedent can be found for practically any construction or locution.” Even T.R. Lounsbury, whom the antipurist Quinn claims as mentor, insists that when citing great authors as authorities in usage, we must be careful to distinguish between slips of the pen (performance errors) and regular usage.

A few of those who cite ancient precedents against language critics actually misinterpret the historical evidence in the OED. Baron, arguing against Newman, informs us that the collocation to convince someone to do something was, according to the OED, used in the 16th century. The OED, however, does not justify his claim. Quinn frequently misinterprets historical citations, sometimes through ignorance of grammar, sometimes through neglect of context and meaning. One example is his attempt to show, versus Newman, that You know? has a long and honorable history and that its overuse is not the fault of modern illiterates. But of the four examples from 1350 onward, only one really illustrates the interjectional or parenthetical You know? spoken with rising intonation. That single example, from Addison’s Spectator (1712), reads: “How can he help that, you know?” It appears in a fictitious letter by a young and silly correspondent who can think of nothing but her much loved but penurious fiancé. This is not an example of choice language but of fashionable jargon satirically mimicked. Daniels naively trusts Quinn’s analysis in this case, but it is all too much for Douglas, also an admirer of Quinn, who explicitly points out Quinn’s error, though ignoring his similar errors elsewhere. Quinn’s and other linguists’ mistake is to snatch at any proof, no matter how tenuous, while ignoring not only grammar, context, and meaning but also distinctions between dialects, styles, or registers—all of which both linguists and literary scholars or critics have taught us to heed.

There begins to emerge a startling contradiction between two kinds of attacks on language critics. On the one hand, linguists often defend locutions by unearthing ancient precedents. On the other hand, language critics are even more frequently attacked when they defend some item of older or traditional usage—disinterested instead of the broader uninterested, I hope or it is to be hoped instead of hopefully, and the like. Chanting the magic formula that all languages change constantly and that such change is normal, without noting that it takes place at different speeds in different sectors of the language (for example, slowing down to glacier-like movement in standard written English), the linguists conclude that we can in no way stem or divert any particular tributary of this flow and that language critics are fools even to try. The contradiction now becomes obvious. On the one hand, language critics should not try to hold onto the usages of their childhood—change is inevitable, a force of nature, and they should go with the flow. On the other hand, if any language critic makes fun of some faddish idiom, vogue word, or careless grammar, he must be shown that the usage, though not employed for hundreds of years, is really acceptable because Shakespeare or Chaucer used it. At one moment, why won’t language critics admit the rightness of the new? At the next, why won’t they admit the rightness of the old?

It is not altogether surprising to find that writers who indulge in ad hominem attacks, lack of documentation, errors of fact, and weak or contradictory arguments also misread the arguments of their opponents. Although many examples might be cited, let us concentrate on Daniels, who more or less consistently distorts what language critics write to make them appear foolish and irresponsible. One of his favorite methods is to leave out the context of an opponent’s opinion. He tells us that Newman, in his dislike of the -ize suSix, goes so far as to condemn the “older and seemingly more established hospitalize.” Yet, in Chapter 3 of A Civil Tongue, entitled “Ize Front,” Newman devotes more than 10 pages to the overuse of words compounded with -ize, citing politicalize, factionalize, metamorphosize, strategize, prioritize, funeralize, prophecize, inferiorize, rigidize, cynicize, museumize, parameterize, heroize, reghettoize, televisionize, and Pulitzerize. This list suggests that hospitalize was not singled out, but simply appeared in a setting of popular addiction to a vicious habit.

Daniels’ twisting of language critics’ views sometimes implies absentmindedness and sometimes sheer irresponsibility. On one page, Daniels charges that Simon and other language critics, being elitist and undemocratic, hate the language of the poor and the minorities, while admiring the language of “the refined and wealthier classes.” But on the preceding page of his own book, Daniels quotes Simon that “the upper-crust ignoramus who graduated from Groton and Harvard” should not be allowed to “dictate what good English is.” At one point, Daniels creates an opinion out of whole cloth, attributes it to Richard Mitchell, and castigates Mitchell for having the opinion. He first quotes Mitchell on the moral value of precise and plain statement, in contrast with Nazi euphemisms for mass murder. (Mitchell: “It’s not impossible that thousands of Germans could have done what they did only because they spoke carefully of ‘transportation’ and ‘resettlement’ and ‘solution’ rather than of killings.”) Nine pages later, having supplied no other relevant material on Mitchell’s views, Daniels informs us that “we can [now] appreciate the idiocy of Richard Mitchell’s notion that the holocaust was primarily a language problem.”

Even worse than this kind of distortion is the linguist’s insensitivity to the tone of the language critics, especially of Newman, Simon, and Mitchell. This tone has been obvious to nonlinguist reviewers, who write about Newman: “deadpan humor,” “immensely entertaining,” “a great wit,” “relentlessly funny”; about Simon: “witheringly, wildly funny,” “witty,” “delightful”; and about Mitchell: “entertaining,” “the wittiest discussion . . . now available.” Even allowing for reviewerese, the impression is that these language critics are at least somewhat amusing. But the linguists disagree. They characterize Newman, Simon, and Mitchell as “mourners” over the degeneration of English, “doomsayers” who have “apocalyptic jitters,” “full of bad temper and solemn rant,” and even “frightening.”

The linguists’ unrecognizable characterization is simply cant, going back perhaps to Lounsbury writing in 1907 about certain unnamed language critics: “An undertone of melancholy . . . pervades most of the utterances of those who devote themselves to the care of the language.”

The linguists are unaware of the uniqueness of each of the main language critics. A favorite way of misrepresenting them is to lump them together, as if they were photocopies from the same original. Daniels concludes about Newman, Safire, Mitchell, the Tibbettses, Simon, and the usage panel of the American Heritage Dictionary: “The work of all the language critics and experts reviewed so far in this chapter tends to suggest that the tasteful observation of other people’s language, whether it is practiced individually or in packs, yields little helpful or accurate information about speech or writing. About all that these tasteful observers have in common is the leftover lore of their schooling in grammar, the sense that they are worthier than almost everyone else, and the conviction that something must be wrong out there.” Daniels claims that all the language critics’ fussing is about “superficial niceties.” Even Dwight Bolinger writes: ” . . . the average shaman pays more attention to the ill-chosen word and the grammatical error, and looks for quickie remedies to deal with them.” More often than not, the reader gets the impression that all language critics are obsessed with superficial matters such as who vs. whom, I vs. me, shall vs. will, like vs. as, between vs. among—that is, the so-called shibboleths.

Having decided that language critics are nothing more than schoolmarms gone public, the linguists sometimes have awkward moments when forced to take notice of specific facts that contradict their careless generalizations. Daniels finds the Tibbettses “curiously soft” on a grammatical point and Mitchell “puzzlingly permissive on a number of points.” More often, however, the linguists, having first assumed that language critics are all basically the same, rejoice to discover disagreement about usage among them, though why 100 percent agreement in humane studies should be expected is hard to understand. Bolinger writes: “No two shamans agree on what ought to be listed” as important items of usage. Daniels pretends to sympathize with the earnest student: “What is the learner, the good-hearted, open-minded, self-improvement-oriented reader of these commentaries [by the language critics] supposed to do? Follow Newman and avoid dangling hopefully, or go with Safire and Mitchell and use it freely?” Actually, Mitchell does not recommend hopefully; he simply says he is interested in more important matters. And Safire, a member of the Editorial Advisory Committee of American Speech (the main professional journal of linguists bent on condemning language critics) has for some time now been hunting with the hounds.

There are few linguists who, like Edward Finegan, recognize the one-sidedness and confusion of many of their colleagues. Finegan does allow that language critics often fail to distinguish between, on the one hand, harmless usages that offend traditional conventions and, on the other hand, “verbal pomposity, redundancy, and obfuscation.” Still, he goes on, “linguists have often balked at acknowledging the value even of the legitimate critiques of the traditionalists. Instead, they have ridiculed what they saw as frettings over neologisms, lexical mergers, and minor syntactic and morphological variants, and as prissy niggling over spelling variants that even copy editors fail to catch.” But, as one might expect, Finegan is damned with faint praise by the linguistically inclined Douglas, who finds Finegan’s book “a rather centrist sort of work,” “generally informed,” and possessing a “bland balance.”

If most of the linguists are unable to do justice to the language critics, perhaps they do not appreciate the language critics’ concern—sometimes sidetracked—for excellence of language (not minimal effective communication, not mere social acceptability, and not witty conversation). The language critics are not a secret police spying out linguistic subversion among ordinary citizens. Instead, their material chiefly comes from those who write for publication or who speak in public. Such people, thrusting themselves before the public, have a responsibility not merely to the language itself, but to it as a form of behavior that reveals mind, feeling, and morality—in effect, the real human being. As Ben Jonson wrote: “Language most shows a man. Speak, that I may see thee.”

Despite their common concern for excellence in language, the language critics are each unique. Safire (the defector) delights in odd varieties of language, in the linguistic trivia that reveal the diversity of human beings. Newman is primarily interested in human behavior, especially when it is manifested in the distinctive language of national, social, or professional groups. He merrily displays with wit, verve, and sometimes too much copiousness the pretentious, the misleading, and the mindless in prose. As for Simon, aside from a certain obsession with minutiae, he chiefly ridicules, more sardonically than Newman, affectation in linguistic behavior, as in his wicked satire on Barbara Walters. He is the strongest on the morality of language; he believes that educated people ought to speak and write better than they now do—and there is little reason to say that he is wrong. Of the four, Mitchell goes the furthest in analyzing, rather than displaying or mimicking, pretentious and meaningless prose; he emphasizes continually the unbreakable connection between language and thought, or how inflated language reflects gaseous thought. Though not everything the language critics write is correct and sensible, they live and work in a world of value which linguists hardly ever visit.

We might wonder why most linguists refuse to recognize what language critics are doing. It would be interesting to suggest some general reasons for their failure instead of merely giving the impression that they are quirky and unscientific. First, some of these linguists may lack literary culture or may have rejected it to satisfy the demands of their discipline. Otherwise, how can the language critics’ satire go unrecognized, with its typical devices of humor, wit, hyperbole, caricature, mimicry, and persona or mask?

Second, the linguists seem very proud of their relatively new and growing “science” and seem to feel resentful when the general public ignores them by putting its faith in various language critics. Employing the scientific method, with statistics and charts, phonological symbols, and tree diagrams, the linguists sneer at the practical insight and intuition of even the best and most experienced users of English, such as Russell Baker, John Ciardi, Marc Connelly, Malcolm Cowley, Ralph Ellison, Paul Morgan, Langston Hughes, Katherine Anne Porter, Leo Rosten, Jean Stafford, Wallace Stegner, and Allen Tate (all from the usage panel of American Heritage Dictionary). After all, these people are merely good writers; what right have they to opinions about language? Have they conducted field interviews? Have they mastered the scholarly literature on linguistics?

Third, a surprising number of linguists have an unexamined faith in the criterion of usage for deciding problems of linguistic choice. Some of these “usagists” tell us to follow the usage of great writers; some only the settled usage of great writers; some tell us to follow the usage of the upper class (whatever that may be in the United States); some the usage of magazine writers for Harper’s and Atlantic; some the usage of college graduates (whether of Berkeley or of Sasquatch State College); and some tell us to follow the usage of the people, whatever that may mean. The criterion of usage, an object of adoration to linguists, turns out to be a false idol.

Finally, many linguists interested in usage show a remarkable intellectual naiveté about the relationship between the descriptive and the prescriptive, the is and the ought. Both Fries and Hall take it for granted that what most people say or write has automatically decided what people should say or write. Hall’s definition of “good” language is quite behavioristic: “language which gets the desired effect with the least friction and difficulty for its user.” I suppose he is referring to situations such as that in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 when the hungry Major—–de Coverley arrives at the mess hall to discover that Captain Black requires the signing of a loyalty oath before anyone is fed. Major—–de Coverley simply barks: “Gimme eat!” and gets what he wants. But language is used in life and literature for more than such elementary situations. Can Hall use his simplistic formula to evaluate the Gettysburg Address, Samuel Johnson’s letter to the Earl of Chesterfield, or Henry James’s later style? Hall insists that what he calls “aesthetic considerations” in language are totally subjective and that no one has the right to offer advice or judgments about them. What aesthetic considerations have to do with getting the “desired effect” is left unexplored.

Despite these would-be scientists who have rejected the art of literary interpretation, trusting unthinkingly the criterion of usage, who have unphilosophically assumed that is determines ought, the great majority of thoughtful people will continue wishing to speak and write well, not just passably or acceptably. They buy the books of the language critics not because they have been panicked into insecurity about their use of language, but because in the world of thought, feeling, language, and values, they know they should strive for excellence. Quinn may claim to admire the vitality of typical Watergate metaphors, but most of us will regard as cliches to bite the bullet, the bottom line, to stroke someone, to play hard ball, to kick ass, and to open a can of worms. Most of us will also reject Daniels’ paradoxical defense of Orwellian political obfuscation on the grounds that there is no essential or necessary connection between thought and language, since it’s the thinking that’s bad, not the language.

Having surveyed the arguments of the linguists against the language critics, I am struck with a kind of melancholy. It is sad to see a number of highly trained scholars who can record dialects, compile dictionaries, and generalize about the structure of language, unable to understand what language critics are doing and what that activity is worth. Unwilling to read with accuracy, they mechanically react with contempt and anger. I once had a teacher, a very good one, who every now and then indulged in a temper tantrum, which embarrassed us. It is similarly embarrassing to find such irrationality among experts in a discipline from which we have learned so much about language. Even more important is what the linguists deprive us of by their tantrums. We are all surely aware that the language critics, however penetrating their insights, cannot always be right. Who but the linguist should be more fit, potentially at least, to rationally evaluate their advice and help guide us toward excellence in language? But in their ruthless and hostile attitude toward the language critics, the linguists are failing us, even as they squander their knowledge and ability.