Sunday, July 11, 2004

What sets a linguist off?

Try using the word "grammar" too broadly. Arnold Zwicky of the Language Log
takes issue with this letter to the editor in the New York Times:
To the Editor:

Re "A 9/11 Cornerstone, Chiseled With a New York Accent," by David W. Dunlap (Blocks column, July 8):

The section of the 9/11 cornerstone inscription depicted in the accompanying photograph clearly shows that the grammatically necessary comma after "2001" ("on September 11, 2001") is absent.

As a longtime editor, I hope that the artisans will be able to correct this omission in the handsome Gotham typeface.
Zwicky says: "Now, this is a mind-numbingly inconsequential issue. Nothing would be lost or confused if we wrote, printed, or chiseled 'September 11 2001', and, indeed, the other order of month and day normally appears without a comma: '11 September 2001'."

Quite true. But even more interesting is his protest of her use of "grammatically."
What should Betsy Wade have written, instead of "grammatically necessary"? "Orthographically necessary", I guess. Would her readers have understood that? Probably not. She would have done fine with the wordier "the comma that written English requires after..." But it's likely that neither of these possibilities occurred to her, because for PITS (People in the Street) the written language is the real language. So she had to reach for something that referred to the language system as a whole and to norms, and that word seems to be "grammar".
And who is to responsible?
Still, it's hard for a linguist not to feel that the profession has failed to get across the idea that the conventions for punctuating written English have a different status from, and much less significance than, say, SVO as the default word order for the language, or, for that matter, the injunction to avoid pernicious ambiguities in pronominal reference.

Well, we've fallen down on other fronts as well. For example, we haven't done well in getting PITS to think of the word "linguist" as ambiguous, referring either to someone with a practical interest in language (in learning languages, teaching them, interpreting, or translating), or to someone with an analytical interest in language.
OK, that last problem isn't really earth-shattering. But I think there's a message in here for nit-picking copy editors (and, really, that should be most copy editors) -- and it's not that small errors aren't worth fixing. We must be able to tell the difference between the commas we'd change on our own time and the commas worth writing a letter about.


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