The Lexicographer’s Dilemma, by Jack Lynch looks to be something well worth getting for those interested in the jujitsu that is writing in the English language. Salon has a decent review of the book:
“Correct” English, as Lynch characterizes it, is basically “the English wealthy and powerful people spoke a generation or two ago.” And sure enough, the first guides to English usage promised to teach people to write and speak with greater “elegance” and “politeness,” not greater correctness. These manuals, born of an age of increased social mobility, were intended for “a newly self-conscious group of people who were no longer peasants but still were excluded from the traditional aristocracy.” The suddenly rich children of merchants and manufacturers needed instructions on the elegant grammar (and manners) of the aristocracy in order to blend in with their social superiors. Tellingly, the 300-year history of fulmination against improper usage is marked by diatribes against those “inferior” and upstart groups supposedly most prone to transgression: women, young people, racial and ethnic minorities and, of course, Americans.
To protests that the language police are only protecting the accuracy, precision and clarity of our tongue, Lynch lifts a skeptical eyebrow. Many of the most roundly deplored “debasements” of English are nevertheless perfectly comprehensible: I didn’t confuse you by writing “Ain’t it the truth?” in my opening paragraph, did I? The only truly unbreakable rules of grammar and usage are the ones that, when broken, result in a genuine failure to communicate. The rest is a form of covert class warfare, and today’s usage reproofs constitute a status-protecting thump on the head delivered by the upper middle class to uppity members of the lower middle.
Thinking of the grammar wars in this light helps explain why they provoke such rage. Much as some people might detest seeing the noun “impact” used as a verb, if a lot of people say it and almost everybody understands it when it’s said, then a coup has been effected. The “verbing” of nouns (or the creation of “nerbs”) has been a flashpoint for the past four or five decades with the growth of business management lingo. Complaints about this point to a particularly American social fissure: between the cultured sensibility of the liberally educated and the can-do utilitarianism of striving MBAs.
Some sort of comment about the evangelical rage that roils over whenever someone suggests that “man” is maybe not the best word to describe men and women seems appropriate here.