Squaring Off

Grammarians at the Gate

Henry Hitchings on the History of English-Language Wars


In Squaring Off, Zócalo invites authors into the public square to answer five questions about the essence of their books. For this round, we pose questions to Henry Hitchings, author of The Language Wars-A History of Proper English.

English speakers have been arguing about grammar and usage for centuries. Why-from George Bush’s flubs to the first debate in the 1600s over the difference between “will” and “shall”-are we so concerned about conventions? Hitchings’ history of our conflicts over the rules we make for how we write and speak explores the origins of language and examines the role of technology today.

1) You write that most people attach a sense of permanence to written words but not speech. Hasn’t that changed in the age of text and email-and the ephemeral nature of words on the web, where we seem to do most of our reading and writing today?

Print culture has created a notion of what it means to write-of the grandeur of the written word-and modern technology is changing that. It’s affecting the way we write and the way we read. But, contrary to what some people casually imagine, the writing that we do using media such as SMS and email leaves a trace. In fact, digital technology can enshrine our most offhand statements for eternity. That has the potential to be pretty embarrassing. To address the first part of your question: while it is true that the spoken word doesn’t leave a tangible residue, it’s not as ephemeral as we tend to suppose. The things we say stick in other people’s memories for a long time. We can’t delete them. Often they mutate. And even if they don’t mutate, they fester.


2) You argue that intensifiers-modifiers like “very” or “quite”-are often inconsequential. But isn’t the goal of an intensifier to bring emotional attention and clarity to the words following it?

In principle, that’s true. But in practice we are a little suspicious of inflationary terms. If I say something is “very, very, very important” I am clearly trying to impress on you that it has some special importance, but you may suspect that I’m betraying an awareness that it is at risk of not being taken seriously. Put simply, the language of intensification raises doubt. I would sound more sure of matters if I just said “This is important.” We are alert to hyperbole and overselling. Intensification is a rhetorical skill, and the most obvious and basic intensifying devices aren’t necessarily the most effective. In some cases, an intensifying word is knowingly used as a marker of triviality. If I refer to “a disaster” you may imagine I’m talking about a landslide or a flood, but if I refer to “a complete disaster” it’s something more like an overly salty pot roast at a dinner party. Perhaps I could have saved myself a lot of words and just said this: succinctness is powerful.

3) You write that the passive voice is often used as a technique to withhold or deny information, and that it changes the grammatical meaning of a sentence. When a sentence’s subject is known, when is it ok to use passive voice?

There is nothing inherently wrong with using the passive voice. It can be an aid to clarity rather than the enemy of clarity. Oddly, the idea that it is undesirable has been promoted by writers who in practice appear fond of it, such as George Orwell-or Strunk and White in The Elements of Style. The issue with the passive is that it can sometimes be used manipulatively to conceal agency. If I say “I made mistakes,” I am the subject of the sentence and am taking full responsibility. The passive construction, “Mistakes were made by me,” lays the emphasis on the mistakes rather than on the person who made them. If I phrase myself this way it’s not as if I am denying responsibility, but I am diminishing its significance in my admission, and it is an all too easy step from this utterance to “Mistakes were made”-a sentence in which the sense of agency is conveniently absent. But it is important to stress that passive constructions don’t automatically do this.

4) Can you explain the decline of the hyphen and its political dimension?

The hyphen has two main uses: dividing words for typographical convenience, and connecting words to form compounds. It’s in the latter capacity that it can have a political dimension. To quote the novelist Toni Morrison: “In this country American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.” Thus we have words such as “African-American” and “Mexican-American.” The hyphen can be interpreted here as a marker of America’s healthy pluralism. But it can also be seen as a sign of tension. Almost a hundred years ago Theodore Roosevelt excoriated what he called “Hyphenated Americans,” and he had previously spoken out against “50-50 Americanism.” For some, terms such as the ones I’ve cited suggest the failure of immigrants to adapt themselves to American values, while for others, these words reflect the
difficulties immigrants face as they seek to be assimilated.

5) Although grammar is elastic, don’t we need a set of common rules, as well as gatekeepers (the people and institutions correcting “bad grammar”) to keep us honest, and to abide by certain standards? Otherwise, isn’t there a danger of English becoming a language of text and email shorthand?

We do need standards. I believe that English should be taught in schools in a way that is at once comprehensive and realistic. But my book is a history of arguments about “proper” English rather than a manifesto-be it for linguistic liberalism or increased linguistic fastidiousness. When we examine this history, we see that many of the gatekeepers have had an agenda that’s been social or political. In a sense each of us is a gatekeeper; I certainly think we should use the language with relish and sensitivity, and that obviously involves making judgments about what’s effective and what’s pleasing (as well as about what’s ineffective, obstructive, obnoxious, or ugly). Yet we should be wary of people who go beyond this and set themselves up as almighty arbiters of linguistic rectitude. Some are trying to do good, but plenty are jeremiahs using arguments about English and its supposed decline to camouflage attacks on, say, ethnic minorities or democracy or freedom of speech. Sometimes the people who present themselves as gatekeepers are in fact just enjoying the opportunity to be officious or plaintive.

Buy the book:
Skylight Books, Powell’s, Amazon

*Photo courtesy of Eli Reusch.