In the last few days I’ve been reading Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace by D. T. Max. Not sure how I got started on it (maybe via Elaine Blair’s NYRB piece or possibly via Max’s reminiscence re: the title or thanks to some more recent but untraceable blog post), but ensnared I am. I haven’t been a big DFW fan, though I’ve seen a lot of chat about his literary significance. I’m stalled about halfway through Infinite Jest, and Consider The Lobster has been on the to-read pile for a year or more.
This morning’s blogroll brought me Jon Evans’ Such DFW. Very Orwell. So Doge. Wow., and that pointed me to DFW’sTense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars over Usage, which is a deliciously detailed exposition on Bryan A. Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage (the article was originally published in Harper’s in 2001, and is reprinted in Consider the Lobster). I hadn’t thought I’d be in the market for a[nother] Usage tome, but the Brown Truck will be delivering it on Tuesday. Here are some extracts from Tense Present that may trick you into reading the whole thing (if you can get past the old tl;dr bugaboo, you’ll probably love it):
From one perspective, a certain irony attends the publication of any good new book on American usage. It is that the people who are going to be interested in such a book are also the people who are least going to need it, i.e., that offering counsel on the finer points of U.S. English is Preaching to the Choir. The relevant Choir here comprises that small percentage of American citizens who actually care about the current status of double modals and ergative verbs. The same sorts of people who watched Story of English on PBS (twice) and read W. Safire’s column with their half-caff every Sunday. The sorts of people who feel that special blend of wincing despair and sneering superiority when they see EXPRESS LANE — 10 ITEMS OR LESS or hear dialogue used as a verb or realize that the founders of the Super 8 motel chain must surely have been ignorant of the meaning of suppurate. There are lots of epithets for people like this — Grammar Nazis, Usage Nerds, Syntax Snobs, the Language Police. The term I was raised with is SNOOT. [see fn below] The word might be slightly self-mocking, but those other terms are outright dysphemisms. A SNOOT can be defined as somebody who knows what dysphemism means and doesn’t mind letting you know it.
[fn: …which term itself derives from an acronym, with the big historical family joke being that whether S.N.O.O.T. stood for “Sprachgefuhl Necessitates Our Ongoing Tendance” or “Syntax Nudniks of Our Time” depended on whether or not you were one.]
Descriptivism so quickly and thoroughly took over English education in this country that just about everybody who started junior high after c. 1970 has been taught to write Descriptively — via “freewriting,” “brainstorming,” “journaling,” a view of writing as self-exploratory and -expressive rather than as communicative, an abandonment of systematic grammar, usage, semantics, rhetoric, etymology. For another thing, the very language in which today’s socialist, feminist, minority, gay, and environmentalist movements frame their sides of political debates is informed by the Descriptivist belief that traditional English is conceived and perpetuated by Privileged WASP Males [fn: which in fact is true] and is thus inherently capitalist, sexist, racist, xenophobic, homophobic, elitist: unfair. Think Ebonics. Think of the involved contortions people undergo to avoid he as a generic pronoun, or of the tense deliberate way white males now adjust their vocabularies around non-w.m.’s. Think of today’s endless battles over just the names of things — “Affirmative Action” vs. “Reverse Discrimination,” “Pro-Life” vs. “Pro-Choice,” “Undercount” vs. “Vote Fraud,” etc.
These are tense linguistic times. Blame it on Heisenbergian Uncertainty or postmodern relativism or Image Over Substance or the ubiquity of advertising and P.R. or the rise of Identity Politics or whatever you will — we live in an era of terrible preoccupation with presentation and interpretation. In rhetorical terms, certain long-held distinctions between the Ethical Appeal, Logical Appeal (= an argument’s plausibility or soundness), and Pathetic Appeal (= an argument’s emotional impact) have now pretty much collapsed — or rather the different sorts of Appeals now affect and are affected by one another in ways that make it almost impossible to advance an argument on “reason” alone.
Take, for example, the Descriptivism claim that so-called correct English usages such as brought rather than brung and felt rather than feeled are arbitrary and restrictive and unfair and are supported only by custom and are (like irregular verbs in general) archaic and incommodious and an all-around pain in the ass. Let us concede for the moment that these objections are 100 percent reasonable. Then let’s talk about pants. Trousers, slacks. I suggest to you that having the “correct” subthoracic clothing for U.S. males be pants instead of skirts is arbitrary (lots of other cultures let men wear skirts), restrictive and unfair (U.S. females get to wear pants), based solely on archaic custom (I think it’s got something to do with certain traditions about gender and leg position, the same reasons girls’ bikes don’t have a crossbar), and in certain ways not only incommodious but illogical (skirts are more comfortable than pants; pants ride up; pants are hot; pants can squish the genitals and reduce fertility; over time pants chafe and erode irregular sections of men’s leg hair and give older men hideous half-denuded legs, etc. etc.). Let us grant — as a thought experiment if nothing else — that these are all reasonable and compelling objections to pants as an androsartorial norm. Let us in fact in our minds and hearts say yes — shout yes — to the skirt, the kilt, the toga, the sarong, the jupe. Let us dream of or even in our spare time work toward an America where nobody lays any arbitrary sumptuary prescriptions on anyone else and we can all go around as comfortable and aerated and unchafed and unsquished and motile as we want.
And yet the fact remains that, in the broad cultural mainstream of millennial America, men do not wear skirts. If you, the reader, are a U.S. male, and even if you share my personal objections to pants and dream as I do of a cool and genitally unsquishy American Tomorrow, the odds are still 99.9 percent that in 100 percent of public situations you wear pants/slacks/shorts/trunks. More to the point, if you are a U.S. male and also have a U.S. male child, and if that child were to come to you one evening and announce his desire/intention to wear a skirt rather than pants to school the next day, I am 100-percent confident that you are going to discourage him from doing so. Strongly discourage him. You could be a Molotov-tossing anti-pants radical or a kilt manufacturer or Steven Pinker himself — you’re going to stand over your kid and be prescriptive about an arbitrary, archaic, uncomfortable, and inconsequentially decorative piece of clothing. Why? Well, because in modern America any little boy who comes to school in a skirt (even, say, a modest all-season midi) is going to get stared at and shunned and beaten up and called a Total Geekoid by a whole lot of people whose approval and acceptance are important to him. In our culture, in other words, a boy who wears a skirt is Making a Statement that is going to have all kinds of gruesome social and emotional consequences.
A dialect of English is learned and used either because it’s your native vernacular or because it’s the dialect of a Group by which you wish (with some degree of plausibility) to be accepted. And although it is the major and arguably the most important one, SWE is only one dialect. And it is never, or at least hardly ever, anybody’s only dialect. This is because there are — as you and I both know and yet no one in the Usage Wars ever seems to mention — situations in which faultlessly correct SWE is clearly not the appropriate dialect.
Childhood is full of such situations. This is one reason why SNOOTlets tend to have a very hard social time of it in school. A SNOOTlet is a little kid who’s wildly, precociously fluent in SWE (he is often, recall, the offspring of SNOOTs). Just about every class has a SNOOTlet, so I know you’ve seen them — these are the sorts of six- to twelve-year-olds who use whom correctly and whose response to striking out in T-ball is to cry out “How incalculably dreadful!” etc. The elementary-school SNOOTlet is one of the earliest identifiable species of academic Geekoid and is duly despised by his peers and praised by his teachers. These teachers usually don’t see the incredible amounts of punishment the SNOOTlet is receiving from his classmates, or if they do see it they blame the classmates and shake their heads sadly at the vicious and arbitrary cruelty of which children are capable.
But the other children’s punishment of the SNOOTIet is not arbitrary at all. There are important things at stake. Little kids in school are learning about Group-inclusion and -exclusion and about the respective rewards and penalties of same and about the use of dialect and syntax and slang as signals of affinity and inclusion.  They’re learning about Discourse Communities. Kids learn this stuff not in English or Social Studies but on the playground and at lunch and on the bus. When his peers are giving the SNOOTlet monstrous quadruple Wedgies or holding him down and taking turns spitting on him, there’s serious learning going on … for everyone except the little SNOOT, who in fact is being punished for precisely his failure to learn. What neither he nor his teacher realizes is that the SNOOTlet is deficient in Language Arts. He has only one dialect. He cannot alter his vocabulary, usage, or grammar, cannot use slang or vulgarity; and it’s these abilities that are really required for “peer rapport,” which is just a fancy Elementary-Ed term for being accepted by the most important Group in the little kid’s life.
This reviewer acknowledges that there seems to be some, umm, personal stuff getting dredged up and worked out here; but the stuff is relevant. The point is that the little A+ SNOOTlet is actually in the same dialectal position as the class’s “slow” kid who can’t learn to stop using ain’t or bringed. One is punished in class, the other on the playground, but both are deficient in the same linguistic skill — viz., the ability to move between various dialects and levels of “correctness,” the ability to communicate one way with peers and another way with teachers and another with family and another with Little League coaches and so on. Most of these dialectal adjustments are made below the level of conscious awareness, and our ability to make them seems part psychological and part something else — perhaps something hardwired into the same motherboard as Universal Grammar — and in truth this ability is a far better indicator of a kid’s “Verbal I.Q.” than test scores or grades, since U.S. English classes do far more to retard dialectal talent than to cultivate it.