NYTimes’ Changing of the Guard

Safire_WilliamDid anyone catch the Magazine’s On Language column? Maybe you heard last week that its longtime columnist, William Safire, died. This week’s is written by Ammon Shea, who recently achieved fame in that newly named genre of annualist nonfiction by reading the OED over the course of a year.

I didn’t make it a habit of reading William Safire, despite my shared interests in language, but from what I knew he was a pretty strict prescriptionist when it came to grammar and usage. Sure, he tried in his column to get a perspective on new, hip coinages, but prescriptive usage—the insistence on following certain established authorities in the constructions of utterances—and maybe of course conservative punditry are what he built his long career on.

Shea’s column isn’t just descriptivist—i.e., insisting on the inherent authority of any native speaker in constructing utterances—it’s basically a manifesto for the beleaguered descriptive grammarian. “My aim here,” Shea writes near the top, “is not to illustrate how to be annoyed by those who insist on correcting your language (that will come naturally) but rather to provide a guide for how to make them go away.”

ammonHis tool: citing historical precedent. It’s an unsurprising move for a man who’s read the OED (which has become the authority it is mostly for the thoroughness of its cited examples of usage that date back to like Chaucer), but it’s a weird defense. Using the word “stupider” instead of “more stupid” is okay because Ezra Pound wrote it in a letter to William Carlos Williams? Really? That’s it? What if my grandfather wrote it in a letter to some hobo he rode on a train with? Is that precedent enough? Isn’t “stupider” okay because “sillier” and “dopier” are okay? Because no hard-and-fast rules exist on inflectional comparatives?

Where I outright disagree with him is when he writes that the word “unique” can be modified, as in “The bedroom is more unique now that it’s been painted.” That something is either unique or it isn’t is a claim Shea calls “so obviously untrue, as people modify unique quite frequently, and have done so for a long time. Through the magic of Google Books you can now search through enormous numbers of books and magazines from the 19th century and see literally hundreds of writers who use more unique, less unique and even that bugbear of the purists, somewhat unique.”

It’s like he’s using prescriptivist tactics for arguing descriptivist points. He’s trying to cite authority, but the only authority pointed to in books and magazines from the 19th century is their age. But language changes every day, right? This is, like, the central tenet of linguistic descriptivism. So what good can an article from Collier’s or whatever tell us about how to use language today?

Long story short: interesting move on the Times’ part. Not sure yet whether Shea’s a one-time guest or if the reins have been handed fully over.


ps: All time favorite The Onion headline: “William Safire orders three Whoppers Jr.”

3 thoughts on “NYTimes’ Changing of the Guard”

  1. Today I heard an interesting segment on NPR’s Fresh Air, by Geoff Nunberg, about Safire. Nunberg’s take on Safire paints him as less of a prescriptivist (prescriptionist?) as he is sometimes made out to be. I recommend checking it out (e.g. for free on itunes).

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