September 5, 2012 2 Comments Chad Nilep Humor , , ,

Recently I have, at odd moments when I should be doing other things, been re-reading James Thurber’s “Ladies’ and Gentlemen’s Guide to English Usage”. The “Guide” was published in 1931 as part of Thurber’s book The Owl in the Attic and Other Perplexities and is a parody of Henry Watson Fowler’s 1926 Dictionary of Modern English Usage.* I first read it when I was in high school and re-reading it now I get to enjoy both Thurber’s humor and nostalgia for my own youth.

A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, known to its many fans and followers as Fowler’s, was an early example of what has become a broad genre of style and usage manuals. It combines grammar advice, in the sense of descriptions of the syntax, morphology, or lexicon of Standard English, with advice on usage and style. The latter includes both Fowler’s observations of elite usage and his own opinions of what constitutes superior style, often delivered with biting humor. For example, under the heading ILLITERACIES Fowler writes:

The property common to these lapses seems to be that people accustomed to reading good literature do not commit them & are repelled by them, while those not so accustomed neither refrain from nor condemn them; they may perhaps be more accurately as well as politely called illiteracies than vulgarisms; their chief habitat is in the correspondence columns of the press.

(As an aside, Wikipedia suggests, “the linguistics of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage mix [sic] the prescriptive and the descriptive.” While it is true that some of Fowler’s advice is based on description of the speech and writing of others while other advice comes solely from his own preferences, in every case it is advice. It is all, at least implicitly, prescription for how English should be used. Compare observations at Arrant Pedantry on the orthogonal relationship between language description and prescription.)

Thurber parodys Fowler’s humorous and opinionated style in a series of essays the titles of which recall the headings in A Dictionary of Modern English Usage. In almost every case the piece begins with some bit of grammar or usage before quickly spiraling off toward Thurber’s more usual subjects of sex, marriage, and middle-class society. Under “The subjunctive mood”, for example, Thurber writes:

Let us examine the all too common domestic situation where the husband arrives just after another gentleman has departed—or just after he thinks another gentleman has departed […] The wife, in either case, is almost sure to go into the subjunctive—very likely before any accusation is made. Among the most common subjunctives which she will be inclined to use are those of indignation and hauteur, such as “Be that as it may,” “Far be it from me,” etc. For the moment, she is safe enough in the subjunctive, because her husband has probably gone into it, too, using “Would God I were,” “If there be justice,” and so on.

Reading these essays again I notice that the parody is built around a central conceit: that a language usage guide is equivalent to Self-Help literature or newspaper advice columns. Thus Thurber’s ‘advice’ about grammar, word use, or punctuation inevitably morphs into ‘advice’ about life, often including sex or class propriety.

Someone has written in to ask whether to say “I feel bad” or “I feel badly.” The question is not so easy as it might seem. Your conscientious grammarian will find out, if he has time, just what is the matter with the person who makes the inquiry, or whether anything is the matter. No one wants to just go ahead and advise a person to say either “I feel bad” or “I feel badly,” much less to say both of them, because in so many cases the ailment is purely imaginary. [from “Adverbial advice”]

Word has somehow got around that a split infinitive is always wrong. This is of a piece with the sentimental and outworn notion that it is always wrong to strike a lady. Everybody will recall at least one woman of his acquaintance whom, at one time, or another, he has had to punch or slap. [“The split infinitive”]

The number of people who use “whom” and “who” wrongly is appalling. The problem is a difficult one and it is complicated by the importance of tone, or taste. Take the common expression, “Whom are you, anyways?” That is of course, strictly speaking, correct—and yet how formal, how stilted! The usage to be preferred in ordinary speech and writing is “Who are you, anyways?” “Whom” should be used in the nominative case only when a note of dignity or austerity is desired. [“Who and whom”]

It further strikes me that this is not merely a conceit around which to build a parody. It is also a fair assessment of what usage guides are generally used for. Often the reason one consults a usage guide is to ensure that one’s English is standard and thus avoid embarrassment. This is, at bottom, as much a concern about class and about indexing the proper levels of education and refinement as the advice any self-improvement guide might offer.

This is not a new observation, I know. One could cite much of the literature in sociolinguistics, sociology of education, and contemporary linguistic anthropology on the social and political value of language usage. I won’t presume to catalog all the important work on that subject, but will append a partial list of works to this post.


 Partial & idiosyncratic bibliography

Agha, Asif
2007 Language and Social Relations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bourdieu, Pierre
1977 The economics of linguistic exchanges. Social Sciences Information 16(6): 645-668.
1984 Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Finegan , Edward
1980 Attiudes Towards Language Usage: A History of the War of Words. New York and London: Teacher’s College Press.

Friedrich, Paul
1989 Language, ideology, and political economy. American Anthropologist 91(2): 295-312.

Gal, Susan
1989 Language and political economy. Annual Reviews in Anthropology 18: 345-367.

Hill, Jane
1985 The grammar of consciousness and the consciousness of grammar. American Ethnologist 12(4): 725- 737.

Irvine, Judith
1989 When talk isn’t cheap: language and political economy. American Ethnologist 16(2): 248-261.

Jaffe, Alexandra
1996 The second annual Corsican spelling contest. American Ethnologist 23(4): 816-835.

Milroy, James and Leslie Milroy
1985 Authority in Language: Investigating Language Prescription and Standardisation. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul

Schweiger, Beth Barton
2010 A social history of English grammar in the early United States. Journal of the Early Republic 30: 533-555.

Silverstein, Michael
1979 Language structure and linguistic ideology. In The Elements, R. Clyne, W. Hanks & C. Hofbauer (eds.), 193-247. Chicago: Chicago Linguistic Society
1996 Monoglot ‘standard’ in America: standardization and metaphors of linguistic hegemony. In The Matrix of Language, D. Brenneis, & R. Macaulay (eds.), 284-306. Boulder: Westview Press.

Woolard, Kathryn
1985 Language variation and cultural hegemony: toward an integration of sociolinguistic and social theory. American Ethnologist 12(4): 38-748.


* Fun fact: The Owl in the Attic features an introduction by E.B. White, Thurber’s colleague at The New Yorker. Years later, in 1957, White co-authored the popular, though perhaps overrated, Elements of Style.