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.”
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