The Negative Canon: Introduction

A fellow contributor to the LinkedIn group Grammar Geeks, Bessel Dekker, has suggested the term negative canon for those features of English that are frequently the object of the attention of those in various Facebook groups and elsewhere who seek to tell us how to use our own language. They complain about current developments in the language, oblivious to the fact that such developments are sometimes far from new, and that English contains features that have come about through the type of changes in the past that they condemn in the present. We are asked to accept what they say because that’s their opinion or what they’ve always been taught.

A prominent characteristic of the negative canon is that it consists of a relatively small number of features which come up time and again, and are often of the kind that Geoffrey Pullum has called ‘the most intellectually trivial details of standard written English’.  As an example, Bessel has listed the following salient features of Afro-American Vernacular English:

(1) the multiple negative.
(2) nonstandard forms such as aks.
(3) absence the forms of be when it is a copula.
(4) uninflected be when it is an existential verb.
(5) word order which is different from that in Standard English.

His point is that of these five, only the first two are habitually seized upon. Other instances include sentence adverbs, where hopefully is often disdained, but all the others are ignored. Similarly, the pronunciation mischievious is thought to be an indication of moral decline and the end of civilisation as we know it, but, as Bessel has said, it is not the first, let alone the only, case were epenthesis has caused language change.

Bessel has therefore made an important distinction between the negative canon and what he has called the negative pool. While the latter consists of all instances that could be objected against, the former comprises the usual suspects which are in fact singled out. Thus, sadly as a sentence adverb, for example, would be in the negative pool only, while hopefully has made the negative canon. The composition of the negative canon, it seems, is quite arbitrary, which suggests that no that no systematic study underlies it.

Bessel has suggested a few criteria which give an item a good chance of being included in the negative canon. They are:

(a) the intelligibility criterion: objections against it should be easy to understand.
(b) the beaten path criterion: it should have been discussed before, the more frequently the better.
(c) the authority criterion: it should have been rejected or challenged by such writers as Lowth, Murray, Fowler, or Strunk.

(d) the criterion from logic: it should be vulnerable to the argument that it flies in the face of ‘logic’.
(e) the criterion from semantics, including etymology: it should be demonstrably subject to meaning shift (the ‘etymological fallacy’).
(f) the criterion from syntax: it should be demonstrably at variance with syntactic behaviour elsewhere.

It might, as Bessel has also suggested, be illuminating to compile an inventory of items that make up the negative canon and to trace each to its first source. That may be a little ambitious for Caxton, but in a series of forthcoming posts I plan to examine some of the usages in question in an attempt to disentangle fact from fiction, truth from prejudice, reality from fantasy. They can for convenience be considered under the headings of grammar, vocabulary, and orthography and punctuation. Negative canon posts will not be in any particular order, and not necessarily uninterrupted by unrelated posts.


Filed under Language, The Negative Canon

35 responses to “The Negative Canon: Introduction

  1. I would think that Stan Carey’s Usage Peeve Bingo already points the way to what should be in the cannon.

    And Motivated Grammars’s annual ‘National Grammar Day’ collections should also help.


  2. Pingback: The Negative Canon: ‘Who’ and ‘Whom’ | Caxton

  3. I dare you to do ‘literally’. It’s one I’ve been meaning to do myself for a long time.


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