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Grammar Puss

The fallacies of the language mavens.

Language is a human instinct. All societies have complex language, and everywhere the languages use the same kinds of grammatical machinery, such as nouns, verbs, auxiliaries and agreement. Normal children develop language without conscious effort or formal lessons, and by the age of 3 they speak in fluent grammatical sentences. Brain damage or congenital conditions can make a retarded person a linguistic savant or a person of high intelligence unable to speak. All this has led many scientists to conclude that there are specialized circuits in the brain, and perhaps specialized genes, that create the gift of articulate speech.

But when you read about language in the popular press, you get a very different picture. Johnny can't construct a grammatical sentence. As educational standards decline and pop culture disseminates the inarticulate ravings and unintelligible patois of surfers, rock stars and valley girls, we are turning into a nation of functional illiterates: misusing "hopefully," confusing "lie" and "lay," treating "bummer" as a sentence, letting our participles dangle.

What is behind this contradiction? If language is as instinctive to humans as dam-building is to beavers, if the design of syntax is coded in our DNA, why does the average American sound like a gibbering fool every time he opens his mouth or puts pen to paper?

The most benign explanation for this apparent contradiction is that the words "rule" and "grammar" have very different meanings to a scientist and to a layperson. The rules people learn (or, more likely, fail to learn) in school are called "prescriptive" rules, prescribing how one ought to talk. Scientists studying language propose "descriptive" rules, describing how people do talk. Prescriptive and descriptive grammar are simply different things. To a scientist, the fundamental fact of human language is its sheer improbability. Most objects in the universe—rocks, worms, cows, cars—cannot talk.Even in humans, speech comprises an infinitesimal fraction of the noises people's mouths are capable of making. I can arrange a combination of words that explains how octopuses make love or how to build an atom bomb; rearrange the words in even the most minor way, and the result is a sentence with a different meaning or, more likely, word salad. How are we to account for this miracle? What would it take to build a device that could duplicate human language?

Obviously, you would need to build in rules. But prescriptive rules? Imagine trying to build a talking machine by designing it to obey rules such as "Don't split infinitives" or "Never begin a sentence with `because.'" It would just sit there. Prescriptive rules are useless without the much more fundamental rules that create the sentences to begin with. These rules are never mentioned in style manuals because the authors correctly assume that anyone capable of reading the manuals must already know them. No one, not even a valley girl has to be told not to say "Apples the eat boy" or "Who did you meet John and?" or the vast, vast majority of the trillions of mathematically possible combinations of words. So when a scientist considers all the high-tech mental machinery needed to order words into everyday sentences, prescriptive rules are, at best, inconsequential decorations.

So there is no contradiction, after all, in saying that every normal person can speak grammatically (in the sense of systematically) and ungrammatically (in the sense of nonprescriptively), just as there is no contradiction in saying that a taxi obeys the laws of physics but breaks the laws of Massachusetts.

So whence the popular anxiety? This is where a less than benign explanation comes in. Someone, somewhere, must be making decisions about "correct English" for the rest of us. Who? There is no English Language Academy. The legislators of "correct English," in fact, are an informal network of copy editors, dictionary usage panelists, style manual writers, English teachers, essayists and pundits.Their authority, they claim, comes from their dedication to carrying out standards that maximize the language's clarity, logic, consistency, precision, stability and expressive range. William Safire, who writes the weekly column "On Language" for the New York Times Magazine, calls himself a "language maven," from the Yiddish word meaning expert, and this gives us a convenient label for the entire group.

To whom I say: Maven, shmaven! Kibitzers and nudniks is more like it. For here are the remarkable facts. Most of the prescriptive rules of the language mavens are bits of folklore that originated for screwball reasons several hundred years ago. For as long as they have existed, speakers have flouted them, spawning identical plaints about the imminent decline of the language century after century.The rules conform neither to logic nor to tradition, and if they were ever followed they would force writers into fuzzy, clumsy, incomprehensible prose, in which certain thoughts are not expressible at all.Indeed, most of the "ignorant errors" these rules are supposed to correct display an elegant logic and an acute sensitivity to the grammatical texture of the language, to which the mavens are oblivious.

The scandal of the language mavens began in the eighteenth century. The London dialect had become an important world language, and scholars began to criticize it as they would any institution, in part to question the authority of the aristocracy. Latin was considered the language of enlightenment and was offered as an ideal of precision and logic to which English should aspire. The period also saw unprecedented social mobility, and anyone who wanted to distinguish himself as cultivated had to master the best version of English. These trends created a demand for handbooks and style manuals, which were soon shaped by market forces: the manuals tried to outdo one another by including greater numbers of increasingly fastidious rules that no refined person could afford to ignore. Most of the hobgoblins of prescriptive grammar (don't split infinitives, don't end a sentence with a preposition) can be traced back to these eighteenth-century fads.

Of course, forcing modern speakers of English to not—whoops, not to—split an infinitive because it isn't done in Latin makes about as much sense as forcing modern residents of England to wear laurels and togas. Julius Caesar could not have split an infinitive if he had wanted to. In Latin the infinitive is a single word such as "facere," a syntactic atom. But in English, which prefers to build sentences around many simple words instead of a few complicated ones, the infinitive is composed of two words.Words, by definition, are rearrangeable units, and there is no conceivable reason why an adverb should not come between them:

Space—the final frontier.... These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.

To "go boldly" where no man has gone before? Beam me up, Scotty; there's no intelligent life down here. As for outlawing sentences that end with a preposition (impossible in Latin for reasons irrelevant to English)—as Winston Churchill said, "It is a rule up with which we should not put."

But once introduced, a prescriptive rule is very hard to eradicate, no matter how ridiculous. Inside the writing establishment, the rules survive by the same dynamic that perpetuates ritual genital mutilations and college fraternity hazing. Anyone daring to overturn a rule by example must always worry that readers will think he or she is ignorant of the rule, rather than challenging it. Perhaps most importantly, since prescriptive rules are so psychologically unnatural that only those with access to the right schooling can abide by them, they serve as shibboleths, differentiating the elite from the rabble.Throughout the country people have spoken a dialect of English, some of whose features date to the Early Modern English period, that H.L. Mencken called The American Language. It had the misfortune of not becoming the standard of government and education, and large parts of the "grammar" curriculum in U.S. schools have been dedicated to stigmatizing it as sloppy speech.

Frequently the language mavens claim that nonstandard American English is not just different, but less sophisticated and logical. The case, they would have to admit, is hard to make for nonstandard irregular verbs such as "drag/drug" (and even more so for conversions to regularity such as "feeled" and "growed"). After all, in "correct" English, Richard Lederer noted, "Today we speak, but first we spoke; some faucets leak, but never loke. Today we write, but first we wrote; we bite our tongues, but never bote." At first glance, the mavens would seem to have a better argument when it comes to the loss of conjugational distinctions in "He don't" and "We was." But then, this has been the trend in standard English for centuries. No one gets upset that we no longer distinguish the second person singular form of verbs, as in "thou sayest." And by this criterion it is the nonstandard dialects that are superior, because they provide their speakers with second person plural pronouns like "y'all" and "youse."

At this point, defenders of the standard are likely to pull out the notorious double negative, as in "I can't get no satisfaction." Logically speaking, they teach, the two negatives cancel out each other; Mr. Jagger is actually saying that he is satisfied. The song should be titled "I Can't Get Any Satisfaction." But this reasoning is not satisfactory. Hundreds of languages require their speakers to use a negative element in the context of a negated verb. The so-called "double negative," far from being a corruption, was the norm in Chaucer's Middle English, and negation in standard French, as in "Je ne sais pas" where "ne" and "pas" are both negative, is a familiar contemporary example. Come to think of it, standard English is really no different. What do "any," "even" and "at all" mean in the following sentences?

I didn't buy any lottery tickets. I didn't eat even a single french fry. I didn't eat junk food at all today.

Clearly, not much: you can't use them alone, as the following strange sentences show:

I bought any lottery tickets. I ate even a single french fry. I ate junk food at all today.

What these words are doing is exactly what "no" is doing in nonstandard English, such as in the equivalent "I didn't buy no lottery tickets"—agreeing with the negated verb. The slim difference is that nonstandard English co-opted the word "no" as the agreement element, whereas standard English co-opted the word "any."

A tin ear for stress and melody along with an obliviousness to the principles of discourse and rhetoric are important tools of the trade for the language maven. Consider an alleged atrocity committed by today's youth: the expression "I could care less." The teenagers are trying to express disdain, the adults note, in which case they should be saying "I couldn't care less." If they could care less than they do, that means that they really do care, the opposite of what they are trying to say. But the argument is bogus. Listen to how the two versions are pronounced: 

COULDN'T care                  I
                      LE                        CARE                  
i                         ESS                              LE
                                                could          ESS

The melodies and stresses are completely different, and for a good reason. The second version is not illogical, it's sarcastic. The point of sarcasm is that by making an assertion that is manifestly false or accompanied by ostentatiously mannered intonation, one deliberately implies its opposite. A good paraphrase is, "Oh yeah, as if there were something in the world that I care less about."

Through the ages, language mavens have deplored the way English speakers convert nouns into verbs. The following verbs have all been denounced in this century: to caveat, to input, to host, to nuance, to access, to chair, to dialogue, to showcase, to progress, to parent, to intrigue, to contact, to impact.

As you can see, they range from varying degrees of awkwardness to the completely unexceptionable.In fact, easy conversion of nouns to verbs has been part of English grammar for centuries. I have estimated that about a fifth of all English verbs were originally nouns. Consider the human body: you can "head" a committee, "scalp" the missionary, "eye" a babe, "stomach" someone's complaints and so on—virtually every body part can be "verbed" (including several that cannot be printed in a family journal of opinion).

What's the problem? The concern seems to be that fuzzy-minded speakers are eroding the distinction between nouns and verbs. But once again, the person on the street is not getting any respect. A simple quirk of everyday usage shows why the accusation is untrue. Take the baseball term "to fly out," a verb that comes from the noun "pop fly." The past form is "flied," not "flew" and "flown"; no mere mortal has ever flown out to center field. Similarly, in using the verb-from-noun "to ring the city" (form a ring around), people say "ringed," not "rang." Speakers' preference for the regular form with "-ed" shows that they tacitly keep track of the fact that the verbs came from nouns. They avoid irregular forms like "flew out" because they sense that the baseball verb "to fly" is different from the ordinary verb "to fly" (what birds do): the first is a verb based on a noun root, the second, a verb with a verb root.

The most remarkable aspect of the special status of verbs-from-nouns is that everyone feels it. I have tried out examples on hundreds of people—college students, people without college educations, children as young as 4. They all behave like good intuitive grammarians: they inflect verbs that come from nouns differently than plain old verbs. So is there anyone, anywhere, who does not grasp the principle? Yes—the language mavens. Uniformly, the style manuals bungle their explanations of "flied out" and similar lawful examples.

I am obliged to discuss one more example: the much vilified "hopefully." A sentence such as "Hopefully, the treaty will pass" is said to be a grave error. The adverb "hopefully" comes from the adjective "hopeful," meaning "in a manner full of hope." Therefore, the mavens say, it should be used only when the sentence refers to a person who is doing something in a hopeful manner. If it is the writer or reader who is hopeful, one should say, "It is hoped that the treaty will pass," or "If hopes are realized, the treaty will pass," or "I hope the treaty will pass."

Now consider the following:

(1) It is simply not true that an English adverb must indicate the manner in which the actor performs the action. Adverbs come in two kinds: "verb phrase" adverbs such as "carefully," which do refer to the actor, and "sentence" adverbs such as "frankly," which indicate the attitude of the speaker toward the content of the sentence. Other examples of sentence adverbs are "accordingly," "basically," "confidentially," "happily," "mercifully," "roughly," "supposedly" and "understandably." Many (such as "happily") come from verb phrase adverbs, and they are virtually never ambiguous in context.The use of "hopefully" as a sentence adverb, which has been around for at least sixty years, is a perfectly sensible example.

(2) The suggested alternatives, "It is hoped that" and "If hopes are realized," display four sins of bad writing: passive voice, needless words, vagueness, pomposity.

(3) The suggested alternatives do not mean the same thing as "hopefully," so the ban would leave certain thoughts unexpressible. "Hopefully" makes a hopeful prediction, whereas "I hope that" and "It is hoped that" merely describe certain people's mental states. Thus you can say, "I hope the treaty will pass, but it isn't likely," but it would be odd to say, "Hopefully, the treaty will pass, but it isn't likely."

(4) We are supposed to use "hopefully" only as a verb phrase adverb, as in the following:

Hopefully, Larry hurled the ball toward the basket with one second left in the game. Hopefully, Melvin turned the record over and sat back down on the couch eleven centimeters closer to Ellen.

Call me uncouth, call me ignorant, but these sentences do not belong to any language that I speak.

I have taken these examples from generic schoolmarms, copy editors and writers of irate letters to newspaper ombudsmen. The more famous language mavens come in two temperaments: Jeremiahs and Sages.

The Jeremiahs express their bitter laments and righteous prophesies of doom. The best-known is the film and theater critic John Simon. Here is a representative opening to one of his language columns:

"The English language is being treated nowadays exactly as slave traders once handled the merchandise in their slave ships, or as the inmates of concentration camps were dealt with by their Nazi jailers."

What grammatical horror could have inspired this tasteless comparison, you might ask? It was Tip O'Neill's redundantly referring to his "fellow colleagues."

Speaking of the American Black English dialect, Simon says:

Why should we consider some, usually poorly educated, subculture's notion of the relationship between sound and meaning? And how could a grammar—any grammar—possibly describe that relationship?... As for "I be," "you be," "he be," etc., which should give us all the heebie-jeebies, these may indeed be comprehensible, but they go against all accepted classical and modern grammars and are the product not of a language with roots in history but of ignorance of how language works.

This, of course, is nonsense from beginning to end (Black English is uncontroversially a language with its own systematic grammar), but there is no point in refuting this malicious know-nothing, for he is not participating in any sincere discussion. Simon has simply discovered the trick used with great effectiveness by certain comedians, talk show hosts and punk rock musicians: people of modest talent can attract attention, at least for a while, by being unrelentingly offensive.

The Sages, on the other hand, typified by the late Theodore Bernstein and by William Safire himself, take a moderate, commonsense approach to matters of usage, and they tease their victims with wit rather than savaging them with invective. I enjoy reading the Sages, and have nothing but awe for a pen like Safire's that can summarize the content of an anti-pornography statute as, "It isn't the teat, it's the tumidity." But the sad fact is that even Safire, the closest thing we have to an enlightened language pundit, misjudges the linguistic sophistication of the common speaker and as a result misses the target in most of his commentaries and advice. To prove this charge, I will walk you through parts of one of his columns, from the October 4, 1992, New York Times Magazine.

The first story was a nonpartisan analysis of supposed pronoun case errors made by the two candidates in the 1992 presidential election. George Bush had recently adopted the slogan "Who do you trust?," alienating schoolteachers across the nation who noted that "who" is a subject pronoun and the question is asking about the object of "trust." One would say "You do trust him," not "You do trust he," and so the question word should be "whom," not "who."

In reply, one might point out that the "who/whom" distinction is a relic of the English case system, abandoned by nouns centuries ago and found today only among pronouns in distinctions such as "he/him." Even among pronouns, the old distinction between subject "ye" and object "you" has vanished, leaving "you" to play both roles and "ye" as sounding archaic. Though "whom" has outlived "ye," it is clearly moribund, and already sounds pretentious in most spoken contexts. No one demands of Bush that he say, "Whom do ye trust?" If the language can bear the loss of "ye," why insist on clinging to "whom"?

Safire, with his reasonable attitude toward usage, recognizes the problem, and proposes:

Safire's Law of Who/Whom, which forever solves the problem troubling writers and speakers caught between the pedantic and the incorrect: "When whom is correct, recast the sentence." Thus, instead of changing his slogan to "Whom do you trust?"—making him sound like a hypereducated Yalie stiff—Mr. Bush would win back the purist vote with "Which candidate do you trust?"

Telling people to avoid a problematic construction sounds like common sense, but in the case of object questions with "who," it demands an intolerable sacrifice. People ask questions about the objects of verbs and prepositions a lot. Consider the kinds of questions one might ask a child in ordinary conversation: "Who did we see on the way home?," "Who did you play with outside tonight?," "Who did you sound like?"

Safire's advice is to change such questions to "Which person...?" or "Which child...?" But the advice would have people violate the most important maxim of good prose: omit needless words. It also subverts the supposed goal of rules of usage, which is to allow people to express their thoughts as clearly and precisely as possible. A question such as "Who did we see on the way home?" can embrace one person, many people or any combination or number of adults, babies and familiar dogs.Any specific substitution such as "Which person?" forecloses some of these possibilities. Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice. Safire should have taken his observation about "whom" to its logical conclusion and advised the president that there is no reason to change the slogan, at least no grammatical reason.

Turning to the Democrats, Safire gets on Bill Clinton's case, as he puts it, for asking voters to "give Al Gore and I a chance to bring America back." No one would say "give I a break," because the indirect object of "give" must have objective case. So it should be "give Al Gore and me a chance."

Probably no "grammatical error" has received as much scorn as the "misuse" of pronoun case inside conjunctions (phrases with two parts joined by "and" or "or"). What teenager has not been corrected for saying "Me and Jennifer are going to the mall"? The standard story is that the object pronoun "me" does not belong in the subject position—no one would say "Me is going to the mall"—so it should be "Jennifer and I." People tend to misremember the advice as, "When in doubt, say `so-and-so and I,' not `so-and-so and me,'" so they unthinkingly overapply it, resulting in hyper-corrected solecisms like "give Al Gore and I a chance" and the even more despised "between you and I."

But if the person on the street is so good at avoiding "Me is going" and "Give I a break," and even former Rhodes Scholars and Ivy League professors can't seem to avoid "Me and Jennifer are going" and "Give Al and I a chance," might it be the mavens that misunderstand English grammar, not the speakers? The mavens' case about case rests on one assumption: if a conjunction phrase has a grammatical feature like subject case, every word inside that phrase has to have that grammatical feature, too. But that is just false.

"Jennifer" is singular; you say "Jennifer is," not "Jennifer are." The pronoun "she" is singular; you say "She is," not "She are." But the conjunction "She and Jennifer" is not singular, it's plural; you say "She and Jennifer are," not "She and Jennifer is." So a conjunction can have a different grammatical number from the pronouns inside it. Why, then, must it have the same grammatical case as the pronouns inside it? The answer is that it need not. A conjunction is not grammatically equivalent to any of its parts. If John and Marsha met, it does not mean that John met and that Marsha met. If voters give Clinton and Gore a chance, they are not giving Gore his own chance, added on to the chance they are giving Clinton; they are giving the entire ticket a chance. So just because "Al Gore and I" is an object that requires object case, it does not mean that "I" is an object that requires object case. By the logic of grammar, the pronoun is free to have any case it wants.

In his third story Safire deconstructs a breathless quote from Barbra Streisand, describing tennis star Andre Agassi: "He's very, very intelligent; very, very, sensitive, very evolved;... He plays like a Zen master. It's very in the moment."

Safire speculates on Streisand's use of the word "evolved": "its change from the active to passive voice—from `he evolved from the Missing Link' to `He is evolved'—was probably influenced by the adoption of involved as a compliment."

These kinds of derivations have been studied intensively in linguistics, but Safire shows here that he does not appreciate how they work. He seems to think that people change words by being reminded of rhyming ones—"evolved" from "involved," a kind of malapropism. But in fact people are not that literal-minded. New usages (such as "to fly out") are based not on rhymes, but on systematic rules that change the hundreds of words' grammatical behavior of dozens of words in the same precise ways.

Thus Safire's suggestion that "very evolved" is based on "involved" does not work at all. For one thing, if you're involved, it means that something involves you (you're the object), whereas if you're evolved, it means that you have been doing some evolving (you're the subject). The problem is that the conversion of "evolved from" to "very evolved" is not a switch from the active voice of a verb to the passive voice, as in "Andre beat Boris" to "Boris was beaten by Andre." To passivize a verb you convert the direct object into a subject, so "is evolved" could only have been passivized from "Something evolved Andre"—which does not exist in contemporary English. Safire's explanation is like saying you can take "Bill bicycled from Lexington" and change it to "Bill is bicycled" and then to "Bill is very bicycled."

This breakdown is a good illustration of one of the main scandals of the language mavens: they show lapses in elementary problems of grammatical analysis, like figuring out the part-of-speech category of a word. In analyzing "very evolved," Safire refers to the active and passive voice, two forms of a verb.But the preceding adverb "very" is an unmistakable tipoff that "evolved" is not being used as a verb at all, but as an adjective. Safire was misled because adjectives can look like verbs in the passive voice, and are clearly related to them, but they are not the same thing. This is the ambiguity behind the joke in the Bob Dylan lyric, "They'll stone you when you're riding in your car; They'll stone you when you're playing your guitar.... Everybody must get stoned."

This discovery steers us toward the real source of "evolved." There is a lively rule in English that takes the participle of certain intransitive verbs and creates a corresponding adjective:

a leaf that has fallen —> a fallen leaf

snow that has drifted  —> the drifted snow

a man who has traveled widely —> a widely traveled man

Take this rule and apply it to "a tennis player that has evolved," and you get "an evolved tennis player." This solution also allows us to make sense of Streisand's meaning. When a verb is converted from the active to the passive voice, the verb's meaning is conserved: "Dog bites man" to "Man is bitten by dog." But when a verb is converted to an adjective, the adjective can acquire idiosyncratic nuances. Not every woman who has fallen is a fallen woman, and if someone stones you you are not necessarily stoned. We all evolved from a missing link, but not all of us are evolved in the sense of being more spiritually sophisticated than our contemporaries.

Safire then goes on to rebuke Streisand for "very in the moment":

This very calls attention to the use of a preposition or a noun as a modifier, as in "It's very in," or "It's very New York," or the ultimate fashion compliment, "It's very you." To be very in the moment (perhaps a variation of the moment or up to the minute) appears to be a loose translation of the French au courant, variously translated as "up to date, fashionable, with-it" ...

Once again, by patronizing Streisand's language, Safire has misanalyzed its form and its meaning. He has not noticed that:

The word "very" is not connected to the preposition "in"; it's connected to the entire prepositional phrase "in the moment."

Streisand is not using the intransitive "in," with its special sense of "fashionable"; she is using the conventional transitive "in," with a noun phrase object "the moment."

Her use of a prepositional phrase as if it were an adjective to describe some mental or emotional state follows a common pattern in English: "under the weather," "out of character," "off the wall," "in the dumps," "out to lunch," "on the ball" and "out of his mind."

It's unlikely that Streisand was trying to say that Agassi is au courant, or fashionable; that would be a put-down implying shallowness, not a compliment. Her reference to Zen makes her meaning clear:that Agassi is good at shutting out distractions and concentrating on the game or person he is involved with at that moment.

The foibles of the language mavens, then, can be blamed on two blind spots: a gross underestimation of the linguistic wherewithal of the common person, and an ignorance of the science of language—not just technical linguistics, but basic knowledge of the constructions and idioms of English, and how people use them.

Unlike some academics in the '60s, I am not saying that concern for grammar and composition are tools to perpetuate an oppressive status quo and that The People should be liberated to write however they please. Some aspects of how people express themselves in some settings are worth trying to change. What I am calling for is a more thoughtful discussion of language and how people use it, replacing bubbe-maises (old wives' tales) with the best scientific knowledge available. It is ironic that the Jeremiahs' wailing about how sloppy language leads to sloppy thought are themselves hairballs of loosely associated factoids and tangled non sequiturs. All the examples of verbal behavior that the complainer takes exception to for any reason are packed together and coughed up as proof of The Decline of the Language: teenage slang, sophistry, regional variations in pronunciation and vocabulary, bureaucratic bafflegab, poor spelling and punctuation, pseudo-errors like "hopefully," government euphemism, nonstandard grammar like "ain't," misleading advertising and so on (not to mention occasional witticisms that go over the complainer's head).

I hope to have convinced you of two things. Many prescriptive rules are just plain dumb and should be deleted from the handbooks. And most of standard English is just that, standard, in the sense of standard units of currency or household voltages. It is just common sense that people should be encouraged to learn the dialect that has become the standard in their society. But there is no need to use terms like "bad grammar," "fractured syntax" and "incorrect usage" when referring to rural, black and other nonstandard dialects (even if you dislike "politically correct" euphemism): the terms are not only insulting, but scientifically inaccurate.

The aspect of language use that is most worth changing is the clarity and style of written prose. The human language faculty was not designed for putting esoteric thoughts on paper for the benefit of strangers, and this makes writing a difficult craft that must be mastered through practice, feedback and intensive exposure to good examples. There are excellent manuals of composition that discuss these skills with great wisdom—but note how their advice concentrates on important practical tips like "omit needless words" and "revise extensively," not on the trivia of split infinitives and slang.

As for slang, I'm all for it! I don't know how I ever did without "to flame," "to dis" and "to blow off," and there are thousands of now unexceptionable English words such as "clever," "fun," "sham," "banter" and "stingy" that began life as slang. It is especially hypocritical to oppose linguistic innovations reflexively and at the same time to decry the loss of distinctions like "lie" versus "lay" on the pretext of preserving expressive power. Vehicles for expressing thought are being created far more quickly than they are being abandoned.

Indeed, appreciating the linguistic genius of your ordinary Joe is the cure for the deepest fear of the mavens: that English is steadily deteriorating. Every component of every language changes over time, and at any moment a language is enduring many losses. But the richness of a language is always being replenished, because the one aspect of language that does not change is the very thing that creates it: the human mind.

Steven Pinker is Johnstone Professor of Psychology at Harvard and the author of The Stuff of Thought.

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