False Fronts in the Language Wars
June 1, 2012 10:22 AM   Subscribe

"Not since Saturday Night Live’s Emily Litella thundered against conserving natural racehorses and protecting endangered feces has a polemicist been so incensed by her own misunderstandings." - Harvard Psychology Professor Steven Pinker responds to Joan Acocella's New Yorker piece, The English Wars

Pinker's letter to the editor

More from the UPenn Language Log: "...Joan Acocella, is the New Yorker's dance critic, and either the topic was not felt to be important enough to merit elementary editorial supervision, or there is no one at the magazine with any competence in the area involved."
posted by beisny (60 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
Gosh, that teapot's really shaking.
posted by tommasz at 10:26 AM on June 1, 2012 [5 favorites]


> Why New Yorker writers and others keep pushing bogus controversies

"and others" can in this case be read as "almost every magazine and website in the world."
posted by The Card Cheat at 10:29 AM on June 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


Really? I'd bet MeFi is pretty straight descriptivist.
posted by benito.strauss at 10:30 AM on June 1, 2012


The points Pinker makes are good, but it's basically a defense of his own position, a reply piece. There are plenty of resources about this that aren't Pinker, whose bone-picking is manifest and self-serving. I might be saying this because I consider Pinker to be too much of a smug twit about everything he writes.
posted by OmieWise at 10:31 AM on June 1, 2012 [9 favorites]


Why would someone pay a dance critic to write a story about alleged arguments in the world of linguistics?
posted by vytae at 10:32 AM on June 1, 2012


Prescriptivists are the worst!
posted by diogenes at 10:32 AM on June 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


I also don't get why a dance critic would write about this. On the other hand, I am no more qualified myself. I'm glad somebody wrote it, or this afternoon would have been very boring!
posted by rebent at 10:35 AM on June 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


Acocella routinely writes about other things and is as much a cultural reviewer like Adam Gopnik as she is a straight dance critic.
posted by liketitanic at 10:37 AM on June 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


Most of the Pinker piece is amusing and correct — in diagnosing Acocella's deep ignorance of linguistics and the self-contradictory hash she made of both of the "iptivisms" — but his last two paragraphs, about the New Yorker's "problems [...] with science," are off the deep end. It's especially funny, given that he spends so much time mocking Acocella for tilting at windmills, that at the end of an otherwise reasonable essay he suddenly decides to ride into battle against the hallucinatory specter of "postmodernism."
posted by RogerB at 10:39 AM on June 1, 2012 [3 favorites]


I didn't get the reference because I'm only sort of old instead of super crazy old.
posted by dgaicun at 10:39 AM on June 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


Why would someone pay a dance critic to write a story about alleged arguments in the world of linguistics?

Because the resident linguist was out dancing about architecture?
posted by joe lisboa at 10:42 AM on June 1, 2012 [25 favorites]


Yeah, not to defend Pinker's defense, but that Acocella piece seemed risible to me for the reasons given by the Language Log folks. The New Yorker actually doubled down in this piece by Ryan Bloom on its Page-Turner blog. At one point, Bloom wrote an "update" walking back some his overblown claims and saying that oh, of course he didn't mean to attack the field of modern linguistics (but not identifying any of the mysterious tribe of straw men he was attacking) - you can see some of the comments referring to the update - but then the New Yorker deleted the update without saying so, because it's gone now. Very odd.
posted by chinston at 10:45 AM on June 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


The choice of isn’t over ain’t, dragged over drug, and can’t get any over can’t get no did not emerge from a weighing of their inherent merits, but from the historical accident that the first member of each pair was used in the dialect spoken around London when the written language became standardized.

Can we at last end the war on drug?
posted by dhartung at 10:48 AM on June 1, 2012 [3 favorites]


David Foster Wallace was right when he showed in "Consider the Lobster" that lexicography has a "seamy underbelly". Who knew that the difference between Prescriptivists and Descriptivists could make for such compelling drama.
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 10:51 AM on June 1, 2012


Acocella routinely writes about other things and is as much a cultural reviewer like Adam Gopnik as she is a straight dance critic.

Yep. Painting Acocella as just a dance critic is a bit off. She's been writing for the magazine for years and the subject matter of her criticism alternates between dance and literature with nearly every article she publishes. If the piece in question was written by Sasha Frere-Jones, then a similar point could be made about it with far more merit to it, but one could also say that Sasha shouldn't be paid to write about anything.
posted by LionIndex at 10:52 AM on June 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


She's been writing for the magazine for years and the subject matter of her criticism alternates between dance and literature with nearly every article she publishes.

How does that matter?
posted by blucevalo at 10:56 AM on June 1, 2012


I love language, and this argument is kind of ho-hum even to me. But if you enjoy the English language in general and its prescriptivist history in particular, I would recommend John McWhorter's new course for The Teaching Company, Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths of Language Usage. I'm 2/3 through listening to it and he is amazing at deconstructing popular misunderstandings, going beyond "blackboard rules" to show what grammar really is, and putting English in perspective as one of the world's 6000 languages. Most pertinently to this post, he rises above petty arguments.

(I'm not shilling for TTC, just a happy customer. IMO, McWhorter is one of their better presenters. Loved The Story of Human Languages best.)
posted by gillyflower at 10:56 AM on June 1, 2012 [4 favorites]


All I want to know is, does this article contain anything that will help me show how smart I am and make me feel superior to others by criticizing the writing in their posts?
posted by Sangermaine at 10:59 AM on June 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


I have no opinion on this issue, but it doesn't take someone who has been reading the New Yorker for very long at all to realize that Joan Acocella very rarely gets through an article without a dig at academics. There are several in this one, aimed in several dimensions. It seems to be a real hang-up of hers.
posted by GeorgeBickham at 11:01 AM on June 1, 2012


Painting Acocella as just a dance critic is a bit off.

I'm pretty sure the point of that call-out was that she wrote "But turn the page and you get another essay, by the cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker", suggesting that the head of the AHD usage panel had no "competence in the area involved". This is that famous viciousness one finds in academic politics.
posted by dhartung at 11:04 AM on June 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's especially funny, given that he spends so much time mocking Acocella for tilting at windmills, that at the end of an otherwise reasonable essay he suddenly decides to ride into battle against the hallucinatory specter of "postmodernism."

Here's those last two paragraphs:

...In 1962, Macdonald repeatedly sneered at the “scientific” aspirations of Webster’s Third, such as the embrace of quantification, the separation of fact and value, and the theoretical tools of modern linguistics. “For what Geiger counter,” he asked, “will decide who is in fact educated or cultivated?” Fifty years later, this fear of the pocket-protected could be fortified by a theory: Acocella faults the descriptivists for not drinking the postmodernist Kool-Aid and failing to acknowledge “that there is no such thing as objectivity: every statement is subjective, partial, full of biases and secret messages.” At least the prescriptivists, “with their admission that they held a specific point of view,” are being honest about the whole thing.

And here we see a connection to The New Yorker’s attitude toward science, which might be called Postmodernism Lite. Aside from environmentalists and doctors, the magazine tends to treat scientists as a tribe with the rather quaint creed that progress in understanding the world is possible through rigorous theory and empirical discovery. In fact, the magazine likes to imply, they are just another set of factions struggling for power. Science lurches from paradigm to paradigm; ’twas ever so, and all journalists can do is—as the creationists say—teach the controversy. Thus we get a parallel universe in which prescriptivists and descriptivists have done battle for five decades with no clarification of theory and no advancement in our understanding, each side merely waging its own version of class warfare.


You know, I'm really, really hesitant to say this (especially here), but Pinker's weird attack on the New Yorker for the heresy of postmodernism is not unusual for a lot of scientism's evangelists (also known as the New Atheists, metaphysical naturalists, the new logical positivists, etc...). It's been said much more eloquently by others, but there's a very retro element in all of this - science is the only valid way of knowing, all other ways throughout human history are stupid superstition, progress is God, we are the tough-minded Brights who are superior to the unwashed masses, postmodernism or any discussion at all about the history of philosophy of science or philosophy in general are idiotic wastes of time, doubt and uncertainty are wishy-washy (the standard rap on agnostics)... it sounds like something from another, more innocent age.

It's sad that Pinker's gone beyond attacking Acocella's arguments to a broader assault on the New Yorker's standing to say anything he doesn't like - what exactly is the New Yorker supposed to do? Run all articles past PZ Myers's blog commenters?
posted by jhandey at 11:05 AM on June 1, 2012 [11 favorites]


How does that matter?

Because one of the criticisms of the language piece is questioning her authority based on her being a mere dance critic? And I'm saying that that criticism really has no merit? Criticize the points of the article on their merits or deficiencies all you want, but don't use the argument that Acocella lacks cred. As dhartung suggests, it may be a bit of payback.
posted by LionIndex at 11:09 AM on June 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


what exactly is the New Yorker supposed to do? Run all articles past PZ Myers's blog commenters?

Hmmm....
posted by lazaruslong at 11:15 AM on June 1, 2012


Also, Scientism's evangelists? Hahhaahahahahhahahahhahahahhaahha
posted by lazaruslong at 11:16 AM on June 1, 2012


A bit of background: I'm wrapping up my Masters in TESOL.

My students right now are all immigrants and refugees. They are awesome.

What Pinker and Aocella both miss, I think, is that my students will learn English and use it exactly how I teach them, the 'correct' way. Most of my students will go back to their home countries at some point, or, at the very least, stay in touch with friends and families who haven't come to the US.

I might teach them English one way, but that doesn't matter. Because once it's out of the classroom, out of my mouth and off the page the language is going to develop and grow in ways we can't control. And as more and more people in the international community learn English, the less control we'll have.

I guess what I want to tell both Pinker and Aocella is: it doesn't matter. We don't have control over this thing and we never did.
posted by Tevin at 11:21 AM on June 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


"Even the soft-spoken language manuals are agents of tyranny."

I wish I could travel back in time to say that to my fifth-grade English teacher.
posted by diogenes at 11:24 AM on June 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


"It is like reading an explanation of global warming and mounting an indignant defense of greenhouses."

That's an awesome insult.
posted by diogenes at 11:27 AM on June 1, 2012



Prescriptivists are the worst!

Only if a wise and learned body established a series of rules and restrictions describing Prescriptivists as The Worst and promoted this as the only correct use of the term.
posted by The Whelk at 11:35 AM on June 1, 2012


> What Pinker and Aocella both miss, I think, is that my students will learn English and use it exactly how I teach them, the 'correct' way.

I hope you tell them that they should follow the rules you teach them because they are the high-prestige variety that will get them social credit, and not that they must follow them because they are Correct English and everything else (the way English speakers actually speak) is Wrong.

Also, the point is not that Acocella is a dance critic and therefore should not be allowed to write about anything else, it is that she is demonstrably completely ignorant about the subject and therefore should not have been assigned it, or if she was assigned it on a misunderstanding and then turned in that piece of crap, it should have been torn up and restarted from scratch or just stuck in the circular file. For them to publish that ignorant nonsense is tantamount to hanging a sign around their neck saying WE DON'T CARE ABOUT FACTS WE JUST LIKE CONTROVERSY, WE ARE JUST LIKE FOX NEWS. Seriously, this has made me very disappointed in the New Yorker, a magazine I've subscribed to for years.
posted by languagehat at 11:40 AM on June 1, 2012 [6 favorites]


That's nothing, New Yorker! You should see how the American Heritage Dictionary mangles coöperate!
posted by Sys Rq at 11:41 AM on June 1, 2012 [4 favorites]


> I hope you tell them that they should follow the rules you teach them because they are the high-prestige variety that will get
> them social credit, and not that they must follow them because they are Correct English and everything else (the way English
> speakers actually speak) is Wrong.

There's a difference?
posted by jfuller at 11:45 AM on June 1, 2012


A difference between culturally coded style preferences and the inherent correctness of specific variants of organically developing natural language? Yes. Knowing that there are contexts where specific constrained variants of English usage will get you farther with less friction than other variants is useful, but that doesn't make those variants themselves have any inherent value as language.

Or do you mean something else?
posted by cortex at 11:50 AM on June 1, 2012


After reading Pinker's article, I concede that prescriptivists aren't the worst. Diaeresis are the worst!

WE ARE JUST LIKE FOX NEWS.

Let's not get carried away.
posted by diogenes at 11:51 AM on June 1, 2012


I like how her strawman prescriptivist is introduced with Fowler, whose work actually pricked the pedantry of his time.
posted by Jehan at 11:59 AM on June 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


Digression Alert, don't feel like reading the article, but this comment:
I didn't get the reference because I'm only sort of old instead of super crazy old.

Well, I'm not SC Old but the first thing I saw seeing a Litella reference was, "What's wrong with violins on television? ... Oh. Never mind."

[And yes, "Metafilter: Oh. Never mind."]
posted by NorthernLite at 12:00 PM on June 1, 2012


But what's all this about Soviet jewelry?
posted by Kirth Gerson at 12:25 PM on June 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


"Why New Yorker Slate writers and others keep pushing bogus controversies."
posted by symbioid at 12:32 PM on June 1, 2012


diogenes: "Prescriptivists are the worst!"

SAYS WHO?
posted by symbioid at 12:32 PM on June 1, 2012


Also, the point is not that Acocella is a dance critic and therefore should not be allowed to write about anything else, it is that she is demonstrably completely ignorant about the subject and therefore should not have been assigned it, or if she was assigned it on a misunderstanding and then turned in that piece of crap, it should have been torn up and restarted from scratch or just stuck in the circular file.

Actually, the point is that no one at the New Yorker has sufficient expertise in the subject to write a worthwhile article, which reeks of an Ivory Tower attitude and gets dangerously close to the stereotypical musicians' reaction to criticism of their work that their critics can't write songs/play instruments. Most articles in the New Yorker are written by non-experts - should the magazine just fold up shop? I'm not the least bit surprised that a bunch of experts find fault in an article (a book review, actually) written by a non-expert. I guess I've been putting up with Paul Goldberger articles for over ten years - now it's linguists' turn?
posted by LionIndex at 12:52 PM on June 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


> Knowing that there are contexts where specific constrained variants of English usage
> will get you farther with less friction than other variants is useful, but that doesn't
> make those variants themselves have any inherent value as language.

This way of using "value" leaves out all the value loading.
posted by jfuller at 12:52 PM on June 1, 2012


Descriptivists sure get excited when they do finally get to tell someone they are wrong stupid shut up fuck off die you piece of shit.
posted by fleacircus at 1:24 PM on June 1, 2012 [5 favorites]


Most articles in the New Yorker are written by non-experts - should the magazine just fold up shop?

I thought (from my misspent youth as a student-journalist) that the practice was to cultivate relationships with experts who will engage in rhetorical battle via on-the-record quotes. Acocella's piece appears to take the high-risk critical strategy of trying to contextualize a review of books (or movies) as part of a larger social conflict. If done properly, you can shed new light on the conflict involved. Done badly, it's a case of shoehorning selected passages into your predetermined thesis.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 1:31 PM on June 1, 2012


My favorite teacher, a linguist, was always telling us that prescriptivists were wrong, out of fashion, missed the mark; but when he wrote his many books he was always as correct in his use of language that no prescriptivist could find fault with his writing.

It seems that proper and conventional use of language is a class marker.
posted by Postroad at 2:08 PM on June 1, 2012


I hate to be that guy, but
Diaeresis are the worst!
should be
Diaereses are the worst!
/actually loves being that guy.
posted by benito.strauss at 2:12 PM on June 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


Isn't being a descriptivists sort of politically correct? As in giving creedence to all the oddball language usages out of cultural [left leaning] guilt? And note Pinker's writing style is prescriptivist more than descriptivist. He may defend descriptivist usage but he sure doesn't write ungrammatically because if he did everyone would ingore what he writes.
posted by Rashomon at 2:26 PM on June 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


I love how people who argue in stereotypes are themselves stereotypes.
posted by 0xdeadc0de at 2:40 PM on June 1, 2012


There is no contradiction between writing in standard English and feeling that it isn't necessarily more valuable than other kinds of English!

If I go to a job interview, I wear a suit and I put on my girl shoes even though I hate them. And if I go to a job interview, or if I write a nonfiction book for a general audience, I use standard English. Because those are the right tools for the moment.

That doesn't mean a suit is the right attire for every occasion, and it doesn't mean someone is stupid or lazy if they fail to put on a suit (though they might need to be told that a suit is the better choice for a specific context.)

Incidentally, Pinker and I both grew up, I think, in fairly middle-class Anglophone Montreal families, so I assume that his own native dialect is close to mine, which has most of the features of standard English; I never heard "ain't" and double negatives at home, so that's just not how I learned to talk. Of course Pinker would write a book in standard English, if that's what he grew up with. The problem is that children who don't speak standard English at home get put into classrooms and they get taught "Don't say 'ain't'!" without anyone stopping to acknowledge that they are learning to speak a new language and it's not easy and it's not going to come naturally. Those of us who speak standard English natively often don't understand just how automatic and subconscious our knowledge of grammar is -- but if you were scolded and judged on not differentiating between "who" and "whom," or ending sentences with prepositions in casual speech, how much would it make you fearful of even opening your mouth to speak?
posted by Jeanne at 2:40 PM on June 1, 2012 [3 favorites]


Isn't being a descriptivists sort of politically correct? As in giving creedence to all the oddball language usages out of cultural [left leaning] guilt?

Good god, no. Descriptivism, as far as it exists in practical reality rather than in the imaginations of the sort of hand-wringing pedants who complain about it as some sort of path to doom and arbitrarium, is largely an argument from actual linguistics and neurolinguistics.

Descriptivism recognizes that the "rules" of language that exist in usage guidance or style books are social constructs, imposed formalizations and crystalizations of constantly evolving natural language, constraints that are themselves arbitrary.

What actual rules can be said to exist about constructing language exist entirely in the neural hardware we all carry around. And a good thing, too, or we'd be a mute species on account of the lack of usage manuals however many tens of thousands of years back.

Descriptivism is what happens when you look at language as a scientific phenomenon rather than as something to be snooty about.
posted by cortex at 2:51 PM on June 1, 2012 [3 favorites]


> It seems that proper and conventional use of language is a class marker.


Maybe I can make my reply to Cortex a bit less cryptic:

> Knowing that there are contexts where specific constrained variants of English usage
> will get you farther with less friction than other variants is useful, but that doesn't
> make those variants themselves have any inherent value as language.

I absolutely believe that! It applies to any language, dialect, or neighborhood variant except my own. For my own, a more important consideration arises and prevails.

When I taught my children about placing their napkins in their laps at the dinner table, as against anything else children can do with table napkins, I could have said something equivalent to "Knowing that there are contexts... is useful." Instead I said, over and over again for years continuing into the present, that the former is right (and good) while anything else is wrong (and, if done persistently, bad.) The point of this was to pull in the whole weight of tribal value loading on the side of good and right. Later, when we were working on how to write formally for school, I explained that writing like Daddy (Samuel Johnson as restrained by Strunk and White) is right while "alternative" styles and expressions beyond counting are not only just wrong but also will make people think you don't know any better. Tribal value loading, ROTFLOL.

Now I'm entirely descriptivist concerning the speech (etc.) of a whole planetful of English speakers who aren't mine to teach. I offer no correction, let alone coercive correction, even when somebody says noo-Q-lur. So is it wrong to pile such tribal value loading onto the language (and table manners and all the rest of the many things that are tribal markers) only of those we most care for? That choice, my dear friends, is tribal and arbitrary. Pick 'em, I did.

"You must always remember, darling, that Nonconformists may be good Christian men and women. But never forget that we and right."
posted by jfuller at 3:02 PM on June 1, 2012


Isn't being a descriptivists sort of politically correct? As in giving creedence to all the oddball language usages out of cultural [left leaning] guilt?

This comes across like you're thinking, "These people sorta make sense, but I wouldn't want to accidentally let my political enemies score any points. Can someone confirm which side I'm supposed to be on here?"
posted by straight at 3:11 PM on June 1, 2012


Most articles in the New Yorker are written by non-experts - should the magazine just fold up shop?

This is perhaps a side note, but Sylvia Nasar (who wrote A Beautiful Mind) writes excellent coverage of mathematics for the New Yorker. She's not an expert in math at all, but she knows who to talk to and she knows how to do her homework. That's the level of journalism we should expect from the highest-prestige magazine in the US.
posted by escabeche at 3:24 PM on June 1, 2012


Isn't being a descriptivists sort of politically correct? As in giving creedence to all the oddball language usages out of cultural [left leaning] guilt?

Get A BRAIN! MORANS
posted by Sys Rq at 3:24 PM on June 1, 2012


Rashomon: Isn't being a descriptivists sort of politically correct? As in giving creedence to all the oddball language usages out of cultural [left leaning] guilt? And note Pinker's writing style is prescriptivist more than descriptivist. He may defend descriptivist usage but he sure doesn't write ungrammatically because if he did everyone would ingore what he writes.

A key difference is that descriptivists note that the rules change depending on audience, context, mode, medium, and purpose. The rules for an opinion piece in Slate, are different from the rules of a peer-reviewed publication for a journal using a derivative of APA, which are different from the rules for professional email, which are different from the rules for personal email, which are different from the rules for Twitter, etc., etc.. If you want to get published, you use the style that causes the least headaches for your editors. If you self-publish on your own blog, you need to meet the expectations of your audience.

When you look at spoken language, the rules are even more mutable. Most of how the rules are negotiated in spoken language is so unnatural and unconscious, that you don't notice it until a linguist records it on tape. Pre-lingual babies appear to pay attention to those shifts.

What descriptivists dispute is that any linguistic form that doesn't conform to the "formal" and high-status rules is degenerate or harmful in practice. In fact, those forms and dialects may have grammars for communicating some concepts that are more concise than standard American English. Instant messaging abbreviations for example are an adaptation to limited bandwidth and provide negotiation and emotive features that you won't get on the front page of the NYT.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 3:52 PM on June 1, 2012


> Actually, the point is that no one at the New Yorker has sufficient expertise in the subject to write a worthwhile article, which reeks of an Ivory Tower attitude and gets dangerously close to the stereotypical musicians' reaction to criticism of their work that their critics can't write songs/play instruments. Most articles in the New Yorker are written by non-experts - should the magazine just fold up shop?

Do you not understand the difference between "non-expert" and "demonstrably completely ignorant"? Of course one doesn't have to be an expert to write about things, otherwise the entire profession of journalism would collapse. That doesn't mean you can just make shit up because you're writing for a general-interest magazine. The comparison to musicians is ridiculous, but send it to Acocella, she can use it at the next cocktail party when the subject comes up.

> He may defend descriptivist usage but he sure doesn't write ungrammatically because if he did everyone would ingore what he writes.

Oh for Christ's sake. Try to get a fresher straw man to beat.

> That choice, my dear friends, is tribal and arbitrary.

Hey, at least you're willing to admit it. "Daddy, you told me the sun revolved around the earth!" "That's what our tribe believes, kiddo. Be proud of your arbitrary tribal myths."
posted by languagehat at 4:55 PM on June 1, 2012 [4 favorites]


Do you not understand the difference between "non-expert" and "demonstrably completely ignorant"?

Sure I do, but that's not the criticism of the article that's problematic. By all means, demonstrate that she's completely ignorant. "She's a dance critic" does not qualify as a demonstration in this case because it is demonstrably completely ignorant of what Acocella actually writes about in the magazine on a regular basis.

Of course one doesn't have to be an expert to write about things, otherwise the entire profession of journalism would collapse. That doesn't mean you can just make shit up because you're writing for a general-interest magazine. The comparison to musicians is ridiculous, but send it to Acocella, she can use it at the next cocktail party when the subject comes up.

A frequent response that musicians (I see it most often as musicians, but I've also have to criticism of their work is that the critics aren't qualified to make judgments since they can't play instruments/write songs/make a hit record, etc. The UPenn response is that no one at the New Yorker is qualified to write an article about this subject. What are we supposed to do with that attitude? I'm glad you can make a nice quip about it, but there's a similarity. Maybe if your next comment is more condescending, I'll see the error in thinking that?
posted by LionIndex at 5:31 PM on June 1, 2012


The UPenn response is that no one at the New Yorker is qualified to write an article about this subject.

That's not quite a fair characterization, I think. The exact passage from Mark Liberman at Language Log is
...and either the topic was not felt to be important enough to merit elementary editorial supervision, or there is no one at the magazine with any competence in the area involved.
So it's more of an exasperated 'If they put their most knowledgeable people on this then apparently they don't have any knowledgeable people!' If pressed, I'm sure he'd agree that there are likely capable people at the magazine, but that they simply weren't assigned to oversee this uninformed article.

But I agree with you about the inappropriateness of the "she's a dance critic" stuff being thrown about (and can't help but take it as a gendered attack? Was Frank Rich criticized as being a mere theater critic?). I guess the charitable interpretation would be that it's getting thrown about precisely because dance is almost entirely non-linguistic, but that only crossed my mind just now.
posted by nobody at 6:26 PM on June 1, 2012


> Isn't being a descriptivists sort of politically correct? As in giving creedence to all the oddball language usages out of cultural [left leaning] guilt?

No,

It's just that describing how people actually talk is part of studying language. All languages have dialects, and they all change over time; they don't consist solely of their proper varieties. This has nothing to do with political correctness or political ideology.

> And note Pinker's writing style is prescriptivist more than descriptivist.

Describing the form of a language that's considered proper, what linguists call the "prestige dialect", is part of describing a language, along with it's other dialects. It's also the form that linguists write in since it's the form used in academic and most other publications, and they're academics. There's nothing hypocritical about this. They don't have the anti-Standard English ideology you're attributing to them.
posted by nangar at 6:41 PM on June 1, 2012


But the most curious flaw in the descriptivists’ reasoning is their failure to notice that it is now they who are doing the prescribing. By the eighties, the goal of objectivity had been replaced, at least in the universities, by the postmodern view that there is no such thing as objectivity: every statement is subjective, partial, full of biases and secret messages. And so the descriptivists, with what they regarded as their trump card—that they were being accurate—came to look naïve, and the prescriptivists, with their admission that they held a specific point of view, became the realists, the wised-up.

If a prescriptivist is honestly admitting a subjective position, as she seems to claim, then this is a fabricated controversy indeed.
posted by Brian B. at 8:57 PM on June 1, 2012


It's especially funny, given that he spends so much time mocking Acocella for tilting at windmills, that at the end of an otherwise reasonable essay he suddenly decides to ride into battle against the hallucinatory specter of "postmodernism."

Pinker's written whole books on the evils of postmodernism & I believe he's even been physically attacked over it. So it not at all surprising that he'd take any opportunity he's given to slip that in. It's his way.
posted by scalefree at 11:21 AM on June 2, 2012


What's all this fuss about the Presidential erection?
posted by e1c at 9:33 AM on June 4, 2012


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