THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
The Word

No to appeasement

Pushing back against the grammar cops

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Jan Freeman
May 25, 2008

THE WORD "APPEASEMENT" made its obligatory election-season appearance earlier this month, when President Bush declared in a speech that the idea of negotiating with "terrorists and radicals" offered only "the false comfort of appeasement."

I already had appeasement on my mind, thanks to Stanford linguist Arnold Zwicky. A couple of days before Bush's speech, he'd posted a long meditation at Language Log on the question of appeasing the grammar Nazis. (He didn't use those words; he just called them "the crazies.")

Applying "appeasement" to the usage wars first occurred to me a few years ago, when I took my computer's grammar checker out for a spin and found it was full of usage bogosity. Passives are evil, "none" must be singular, infinitives can't be split - who believes this stuff?

Not the good usage writers; any decent advice book will tell you that some "rules" are just odd whims that have burrowed their way into language folklore, independent of actual usage or common sense. They've become mere badges of membership in the sticklers' guild, passwords of the picky elect.

Unfortunately, most usage writers also counsel submission. So your boss, or teacher, or editor thinks "over" can't mean "more than" - why not humor the knucklehead? Why ask for trouble? So cowardice perpetuates the usage folklore. And one day you find the Usage Big Brother installed on your laptop, messing with your head.

Bad enough to kowtow to a misinformed boss or professor, but obeying a half-witted grammar checker - surely that's not the American way?

None of this (I suppose I must say) is an argument against teaching standard English. But writing is a complex and difficult craft; by focusing on trivia (mythical or not), we only reinforce the silly notion that writing well is mostly a matter of avoiding mistakes.

It's hard to see where to start a rebellion, when the penalties for dissent can be harsh - or even invisible. Zwicky has heard executives claim that they simply tossed any job application with a split infinitive. A college teacher once boasted on the Web that a comma splice - a tiny departure from conventional punctuation - was reason enough for him to send back a paper as "incomplete."

These are not grammar Nazis but nit Nazis, small minds powered by big egos. That's a tough combination to fight. But talking back to these terrorists would be progress - a step up from the silent appeasement so many of us now preach and practice.

. . .

DANCING WITH THE STARS: What do Amy Vanderbilt and William Butler Yeats have in common? They both used a phrase I had never heard until I tripped over it the other day at Motivated Grammar, a blog by linguistics grad student Gabe Doyle.

Doyle was interested in Amy Vanderbilt's use of the word literally in her 1958 etiquette book, where she explained that an escort "literally dances attention on the girl he has brought to the party."

"Dances attention" seemed odd to Doyle, and it is: The usual expression is "dance attendance," meaning to be at someone's beck and call. It dates back some four centuries, while "dance attention" isn't even mentioned in the online Oxford English Dictionary.

But it does turn up in Yeats - in fact, both variants do, in the very same late poem, "The Spur."

"You think it horrible that lust and rage / Should dance attendance on my old age," the poem begins - in some editions. In others, equally respectable, it's "dance attention." Why would that be? I asked William Flesch, an English professor at Brandeis, who responded with some tantalizing bits of the poem's history.

"The Spur" first appeared in 1938, he reports, in the London Mercury, with the "dance attention" wording. But in the collection published in book form later that year - the last version Yeats himself saw into print - the phrase was "dance attendance."

Flesch suspects that the London periodical "just had it wrong, but that the editors of the later collected poetry followed the principle of difficilior lectio (i.e., prefer the more unusual and idiosyncratic reading)."

As for Amy Vanderbilt, she was clearly making a joke: "Literally dancing attention," she went on to say, means "dancing his first dance with [his date] and seeing that she is never without a partner."

Why Vanderbilt chose the rare "dances attention" when "dancing attendance" was a flourishing, familiar usage - that's a mystery. But her use of "literally" isn't the intensifying, and figurative, use so stigmatized by word watchers; she really is talking about the fox trot.

. . .

FOR THE RECORD: In last week's column, I goofed not once but twice. Reader Judi Chamberlin hails from Arlington, not Lexington. And the name of the Globe's op-ed feature is not Vox Populi, as I rendered it; it's the much wittier - and more memorable, you would have thought! - Vox Op.

more stories like this

  • Email
  • Email
  • Print
  • Print
  • Single page
  • Single page
  • Reprints
  • Reprints
  • Share
  • Share
  • Comment
  • Comment
 
  • Share on DiggShare on Digg
  • Tag with Del.icio.us Save this article
  • powered by Del.icio.us
Your Name Your e-mail address (for return address purposes) E-mail address of recipients (separate multiple addresses with commas) Name and both e-mail fields are required.
Message (optional)
Disclaimer: Boston.com does not share this information or keep it permanently, as it is for the sole purpose of sending this one time e-mail.