Thursday, March 07, 2013

Paul Brians on Common Errors in English

The following is a section from Paul Brians' retirement address. Brians is best known for his website "Common Errors in English Usage."Emphasis is mine.

I want to conclude by making a few remarks about the work that I’m best known for outside the university, my Web site Common Errors in English and the various publications derived from it. A standard objection to this sort of thing is that correctness in English usage is a social construction, and that the proper role of the professionals should be confined to tracking changing usage and celebrating diversity. Yet English professors are not the gatekeepers of usage, and their permission to stray from traditional usage goes unheard by the general public. Instead, people want to know how they can make themselves clear, impress their readers, communicate effectively.

It is precisely because language usage is an artificial social construction that one needs a lot of information to navigate the dangerous waters of modern English to avoid embarrassment and disdain. We can tell bosses that they should ignore the tendency of their job applicants to write “for all intensive purposes” and “one in the same.” They are not listening. The pronunciation by eastern newscasters of our neighbor state’s name as “Oregawn” alienates listeners. The tendency to call a slash a “backslash” confuses computer users. Mistakes are essentially social, but that does not make them unreal: we need to know the social reality which our words encounter when others read or hear them. Some English teachers are happy to critique the obfuscatory jargon and and cliches of bureaucrats but not to address the verbal gaffes of the downtrodden: but who needs more help? Who is more endangered by linguistic patterns that arouse contempt?

Alot (ha!) of this is very well put. I think Brians overstates it a little, though. The first part I've bolded may be a sort of objection, but it's not one that, if pressed, most professional applied linguists or others will make. I'm in a department with many well-known critical and socioculturally oriented scholars, and I frequently get comments on my papers which could be construed as "nit-picky" and as pointing out the very sorts of things that Brians lists on his site.

I'm inclined to push back a little and to say that some of the things he views as errors are very unlikely to be stigmatized (for example, in passing, he suggests that "firstly" isn't OK), and some things are very difficult to me to imagine anyone ever saying ("soup du jour of the day," "volumptuous"), but what I'd like to see is some empirical research about whether these are indeed common. Somebody should be able to do some pretty efficient corpus studies, no? That would be an interesting MA project.

And what I'd really like to know who these people are, the ones making these errors. I'm an overeducated, hyperliterate English teacher, so it's hard for me to imagine a world in which lots of people think "fowl swoop" is a thing.

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