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Prime Time | Whose language is it, anyway?

Some of you are concerned about the general level of knowledge in America. Here's an excerpt from an email from a frequent correspondent. I've edited it to protect her ID, lest she be accused of elitism, and to change a misspelled word. (Moi? Would I do that?)

"True story: Yesterday George and I went to a Hawai'ian restaurant (which has great food BTW). I ordered my obligatory tropical drink, a piña colada. It was delicious and I thought I tasted a faint gingery or cinnamon-like flavor. I asked our waitress what it was and she said there was no such seasoning.

"'It's just pineapple juice and coconut schnapps.'

"'Oh,' I said. 'No coconut milk?'

"'No. We have some customers that are dairy intolerant, so we just stick with the coconut schnapps.' I nodded politely and looked intently down at my menu until she left."

Nothing wrong with her server's English, but rather the restaurant's notion that coconut "milk" had something to do with dairy.

But is there a relation between English usage and general knowledge? In a men's room at church the soap dispenser was apparently intended for use with a particular "sanitizing" product. (We just fill it with liquid soap.) Its label: "Instant Hand Sanitizer. Kills 99.9 % of most common germs." Sounds pretty powerful -- or does it? What about the other "common germs"? Also, maybe it kills only 5 percent of uncommon but perhaps more dangerous germs. What did the marketer who wrote that think he/she had said?

A label from a sardine can (modified to protect me from being sued): "Blue Beach Fancy Plain Sardines, Lightly Smoked. Ingredients: sardines, soybean oil, water, salt, natural smoke flavoring..." What are "fancy plain" sardines? Does "Lightly Smoked" mean they are really smoked at all? Has that anything to do with the "natural smoke flavoring"? What is natural about the smoke flavoring? How would it differ from artificial smoke flavoring? (They tasted about the same as most other canned sardines.)

On pages 115-120 of the May 14 issue of "The New Yorker," Joan Acocella reviews "The Language Wars: A History of Proper English" by Henry Hitchings. (Not the recently deceased atheist Christopher Hitchens, also a British journalist.) He says some people are "prescriptivists," holding that there is correct and less correct usage of words and punctuation. Others, "descriptivists," denounce such opinions as elitist, as perpetuating standards outmoded at best and oppressive at worst. They assert that language is a vibrant living thing, and any way you express yourself is as legitimate as any other.

Descriptivists often claim that works such as "Fowler's Modern English Usage" (British) and Strunk and White's "Elements of Style" (American) attempt to impose the rigid standards of the ruling classes on the language, to maintain their domination of ordinary people. Actually, these and similar works, while identifying clear and concise ways of communicating, are generally quite permissive, often advocating common sense rather than grammatical rigor.

I presume the ruling classes would probably be the wealthy "1 percent" as opposed to us wage slaves and fixed-income retirees. In America, at least, the 1 percent and their partisans are not noted for the simple, clear communication that Fowler, Strunk and White, and their followers promote. Many prescriptivists, including me, are academics (often liberal academics) who find themselves opposed to the values of the "ruling classes," and are certainly not members of the 1 percent.

However, we prescriptivists are surely an elite, a small group of mostly well-educated people who favor ease and precision of communication. We advocate Fowler's two main principles, clarity and unpretentiousness, in exchanges where precise meaning matters.

That is elitist, but it need not remain so. We are convinced that all members of society would benefit if we understood each other more clearly, and we would like to persuade people of all classes to speak and write in ways that promote increased understanding. And that is not elitist. The 99 percent, especially the least educated and privileged among us, are much less vulnerable to misleading ideological and commercial manipulation when we understand and use the language well.

(I have just used "convince" and "persuade" with distinct meanings. Many use them interchangeably, thus losing the clear difference between coming to believe something is true and getting someone to do something.)

Ms. Acocella's review is a rich resource on the history of English dictionaries and style manuals. It also shows that Hitchings' denunciation of the use of "proper" English is, in itself, prescriptive. The review is worth a read. Perhaps you can find the May 14 New Yorker at the library or your dentist's office.

This prescriptivist rant, Strunkian as can be, has a Flesch-Kincaid level of 9.2; it is written at ninth-grade level.

EVAN HAZARD, a retired BSU biology professor, also writes "Northland Stargazing" the fourth Friday of each month.