Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Vanquishing the Language Pedants

We seem to have hit a tipping point. Academics have long agreed that language is dynamic and personal, so it's really quite daft for anyone to suppose they have the authority to pronounce what sort of usage is "right" and what sort is "wrong".

Yet there remain legions of citizen pedant/vigilantes who make it their task to indignantly scold what they deem incorrect use. Such people never imagine that few academics would back them up in that sort of thing. As I wrote several years ago , the noxious influence of William Fowler (author of "Fowler's Modern English Usage") has been overcome, and modern lexicographers work descriptively (cataloging the myriad varieties of language use and tracking its continuous revision) rather than prescriptively (telling people - as if they were in any position to do so - what's right and what's wrong).

Well, this is finally beginning to penetrate to the public. And I've never heard the issue tackled as beautifully and eruditely as in this short, entertaining video where British actor and comedian Stephen Fry annihilates language pedants with such logic and eloquence that I can't imagine how any of them could ever possibly pipe up again:

Another sign of the mainstreaming of language counter-pedantry: this NPR page explaining how the substitution of "axe" for "ask" has been standard English for a thousand years - used by, among others, Chaucer.

Personally, that sort of thing makes me completely nucular.

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