Linguistic Anthropology

The study of language has been part of anthropology since the discipline started in the 1ate 1870s. This site is a place for linguistic anthropologists to post their work and discuss important events and trends in the field.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Word Rage and Hartman's Law

Update 8/22/2008: The Arizona Republic reports that two members of the Typo Eradication Advancement League have pleaded guilty to conspiracy to vandalize government property. They have been banned from entering any National Park for one year and charged $3,035 to repair a historic marker in Grand Canyon National Park that they 'corrected'.


I seem to add a post to this blog about every other month. I hope some people find my musings interesting and well chosen. I must admit that I don't understand how some of my favorite bloggers, like Mark Liberman or Kerim Friedman, manage to put out more posts in a week - sometimes, in a day - than I do in month, while doing interesting and important work in their "real" jobs at Penn and National Dong Hwa University, respectively.

As is often the case, this musing was sparked by something I read at Language Log.

Liberman notes a piece in the Guardian's Comment is free online version entitled Linguistic pedants of the world unite. In it, Andrew Mueller notes, with approval, the work of the Typo Eradication Advancement League to copy-edit America.

It's all very interesting, and I recommend reading what you'll find by following those links. Go ahead. I'll wait.

OK, here's my two cents. I quote Andrew Mueller:
A person who perpetrates vandalism upon the language, whether they're the signwriters targeted by Teal or the correspondents who pollute Comment is free threads with the barbarous neologisms of text-speak, is not merely inept but actively contemptuous. A language is the crucial asset of any society - it's what binds us, animates us, permits us to accomplish things. It is part of our common space, and perhaps it should be protected as such.
This phenomenon of peevology or word rage fascinates me. People seem to revel in pointing out the the "deplorable" language usage of others, sometimes even to the point of threatening mock violence against the perpetrators. (Mueller allows, "my personal preference for retribution against typographical psychopaths would involve angry mobs with torches.") It seems to me that these peevologists are fulfilling some personal and societal (sorry, Daily Telegraph readers) desire to identify heretics. And, given professed values of religious and political pluralism, linguistic usage is one of the few venues left to heresiology.

That's one cent's worth; here's the second.

Liberman notes several non-standard usages among the comments on Mueller's piece, as well as a couple of non-standard usages in the piece itself. This is an example of Hartman's Law of Prescriptivist Retaliation, coined by Jed Hartman: "any article or statement about correct grammar, punctuation, or spelling is bound to contain at least one eror. [sic]" It's sometimes also called McKean's Law or Skitt's Law, for Verbatim editor Erin McKean or alt.usage.english contributor Skitt, who each seem to have described the process independently.

But note particularly the first sentence I quoted from Mueller:
A person who perpetrates vandalism upon the language, whether they're the signwriters targeted by Teal or the correspondents who pollute Comment is free threads with the barbarous neologisms of text-speak, is not merely inept but actively contemptuous.
Is it just me, or is that really hard to read? I had to read it three times before I could make sense of it. And I don't think it's the use of they with antecedent a person that threw me. No, I think it's the long subordinate clause between the subject and predicate of the main sentence that got me. This sort of non-restrictive relative clause with appositive function is perfectly standard in written English; it's probably nothing TEAL would feel compelled to correct. But given its length, the conjunction of two predicate noun phrases within the relative clause, and the fact that the proper noun Comment is free (which Mueller does not set off with italics or quotation marks) contains a verb, I really struggled with interpretation.

By which I guess I mean, contra those peevologists who argue that non-standard usage impedes understanding, that standard usage is no panacea.

Then again, maybe the plural nouns (they, sign writers, correspondents) in the appositive were a step harder to reconcile with the singular a person.

Or, on the third hand, there's the fact that I am recovering from surgery.

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