The Negative Canon: Final Reflections

This post is the final one in a series about The Negative Canon.

That’s about it on the Negative Canon. I don’t suppose it’s comprehensive, and there have perhaps been some items I shouldn’t have included. I’m also aware that this little exercise has not got even close to tracing the origin of each candidate and analysing why it is singled out. I can only suggest that the reason that the examples which the Negative Canon contains are so selective is that those who peddle them find them easy to understand. Few any longer object to due to instead of owing to because, I suspect, it’s just too difficult to appreciate any difference. Having instead a handful of banal points that you can confidently trot out as having the truth of holy writ can make you feel a superior being to those naive enough to believe you.

Many of these items are aired frequently and at great length in several Facebook groups and elsewhere. They are even – God help us – featured on a set of mugs. Mugs for mugs, you might say. Those who comment have typically done no research, cite no references, don’t seem to have consulted a reputable dictionary or examined a corpus or ever picked up an introductory  book on linguistics. They are long on opinion and short on fact, yet they consider themselves to be greater authorities than those who have spent their careers researching, teaching and writing about the subject. As Geoffrey Pullum has written:

Metallurgical claims are treated as needing at least some kind of fact-checking with metallurgists: you can’t just assert that lead is highly brittle at room temperature or that vanadium explodes if put in contact with water. But linguistic claims are left to the same sort of uncontrolled mouthing-off as totally subjective opinions about food or fashion.

The basic misapprehension seems to arise from a failure to understand that English comes in many varieties, and that even a single variety can vary according to the context in which it is being used. All varieties of the language, whether regional or social, have a consistent grammatical system and their own vocabulary. When native speakers of English are accused of using ‘poor grammar’, what they are normally doing is using one of the many varieties of English, of which most are nonstandard. It shows a fundamental ignorance of the facts to think that Standard English is some kind of idealised form of the language and that all other varieties are corruptions of it. The dialect we know as Standard English was adopted as the most prestigious not for linguistic reasons, but for political, economic and social reasons. Had history been different, what we call Standard English, if it had survived at all, would now itself be the object of scorn.

Joyless souls, the self-appointed guardians of the language appear to take no delight in the language of which they claim to be such proud and vigilant speakers. But those who are convinced enough of their own righteousness to go into print are, to quote Geoffrey Pullum again, hopeless at making their own case:

I’d say the problem with people who want to impose their linguistic tastes on others by writing books on how to write is that they are so bad at it . . . they actually don’t know how they do what they do, and they are clueless about the grammar of the language in which they do it, and they offer recommendations on how you should write that are unfollowed, unfollowable, or utterly insane.

What, ultimately, is being judged is not language at all, but the socio-economic status which language represents. To judge someone by their use of language is no different from judging them from their clothes, where they live, how they spend their leisure time, what they do for a living, and how they use their knives and forks. We are all entitled to do that, of course, however unworthy it may be, and no doubt we do all do it. But we should be in no doubt that those who use language differently from us are, within a given context, communicating no more and no less competently than we do.

Organisations which have presumably paid large sums of money for their less than felicitous corporate publicity material are perhaps fair game. More often, however, jibes about language use are directed at those who may have had little education and as a result are among society’s disadvantaged. They often seem to include those who don’t have English as their native language. Such attacks are deeply unappealing and reminiscent of social, racial and sexual discrimination. They deserve the same contempt, particularly when it is suggested that those who express themselves differently are mentally deficient.

Next time you come across someone who thinks they know what’s wrong with English and how to put it right, ask them these questions:

  • What are your linguistic qualifications?
  • How will you go about accomplishing your mission?
  • Do you think anyone will take any notice?


Filed under The Negative Canon

8 responses to “The Negative Canon: Final Reflections

  1. Here’s Mark Liberman’s rant from 2004:

    Also, I have to say that I hate this role of correcting elementary errors of linguistic analysis, or questioning unthinking prescriptions that are logically incoherent, factually wrong and promptly disobeyed by the prescriber. Historians aren’t constantly confronted with people who carry on self-confidently about the rule against adultery in the sixth amendment to the Declamation of Independence, as written by Benjamin Hamilton. Computer scientists aren’t always having to correct people who make bold assertions about the value of Objectivist Programming, as examplified in the HCNL entities stored in Relaxational Databases. The trouble is, most people are much more ignorant about language than they are about history or computer science, but they reckon that because they can talk and read and write, their opinions about talking and reading and writing are as well informed as anybody’s. And since I have DNA, I’m entitled to carry on at length about genetics without bothering to learn anything about it. Not.


  2. A very thoughtful summation of your series, Barrie, and of the issue in general. As a species, we seem to need to compartmentalise everything and everybody in our lives despite the fact that *not* doing so brings us so much freedom to enjoy the differences we encounter. I can hear Yul Brynner’s voice as the King of Siam saying ‘It is a puzzlement.’


  3. “Joyless souls, the self-appointed guardians of the language appear to take no delight in the language of which they claim to be such proud and vigilant speakers.”

    “But do they ever bubble and froth and slobber and cream with joy at language?” – from Stephen Fry’s paean to language, in which he mentions quite a few of the points you’ve been talking about. A suitable antidote.


  4. Just to say, I didn’t embed the video. It just appeared automatically.


  5. Pingback: Link love: language (58) | Sentence first

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