The blurry line between linguistic pet peeves and prejudice

Lingua Franca is a blog at the Chronicle of Higher Education that I enjoy reading especially for Anne Curzan‘s and Geoffrey Pullum‘s excellent posts, but all of the contributors write about language, and so I’m a regular reader.

Today, there was a post by Ben Yagoda with an interesting title, “Ben Yagoda Gets Sick of the Historical Present“.  The title caught my attention for a number of reasons.  First, it contains a verb that would in all likelihood normally not have appeared in a title that was not trying to mock the use of the historic present (I would expect the title elsewhere to have been “Ben Yagoda Sick of the Historical Present”).  In addition, it mentioned the historical present (the use of verbs in present tense to refer to actions in the past, commonly used at intense moments in story-telling, for example, “So then he grabs the knife and stabs the guy with it”).  As a discourse analyst, especially one who studies narratives, I was excited to hear his take on this feature of discourse.  And then I start (yes, start) reading.

Yagoda’s post begins with “Enough already with the historical present”.  Yagoda goes on to suggest that certain speakers and writers are over-using or inappropriately using the historical present tense.  He gives us a number of reasons why he thinks it’s a problem: it’s “tacky”; it has “worn out its welcome”; it is “starting to come off as a twitchy reflex”; it’s “as annoying as starting sentences with so or ending them with right?” (this last one contains links to two of his other posts expressing his opinions about people’s language: one on “so” and the other on “right?”).  All of this should reveal that Yagoda’s discussion of these language features is essentially just the expression of arbitrary pet peeves.

Unfortunately, there are two related reasons why I think Yagoda’s posts go beyond simple discussions of his own personal preferences and become a cause for concern.

First, Yagoda is making every effort to portray his opinions as anything but a matter of his own personal taste.  The posts (I’m speaking here specifically of his posts on language features like the historical present“so”, and “right” posts) are after all affiliated with a fairly well-regarded publication associated with higher education.  In addition, Yagoda includes in his article a sort of historical discussion of the historical present, which he claims is supposed to answer the question of “Where did it come from”?  (Yagoda’s history lesson only goes back as far as the nineteenth century.  However, the historical present is attested in Middle English, meaning it has been around since between the 1100s and the 1400s.)  Most clearly, Yagoda concludes his post by apparently reading the minds of writers he respects (Adam Liptak and Doris Kearns Goodwin), by stating that these other good writers “realize that, in discussing the past, [the historical present] lacks the authority, the range, the depth, and the power of the past tense.  They realize that it’s essentially a novelty item”.  Perhaps these writers do think these things; perhaps they would decide to agree with them after what Yagoda says about it. Perhaps Yagoda is just appealing to the hypothetical opinions of authorities.  Whatever the case, most of the things Yagoda accuses the historical present of being are merely his interpretations (and thus difficult to dispute, although one can just as easily take the opposite interpretation, for example, that the historic present is powerful).  However, owing to its ubiquity in modern conversational narratives and its long presence in English (and many other languages), the historical present is hardly “a novelty item”.  In the end, it seems that Yagoda attempts to justify his pet peeves using a variety of different scholarly resources, designed to give his preferences and interpretations an air of authority.  I should make it clear here that Yagoda’s argumentation is not in itself a sinister undertaking, since it’s the same type of strategies that aficionados might take when fervently defending their opinions of, for example, a piece of literature.

However, what I find to be the more concerning issue with this post and others like it are that it seems (intentionally or not) to encourage others to engage in more serious complaints about others’ language.  I don’t think Yagoda (like any other writer or scholar) is to blame for every response his writing elicits.  However, in providing intellectual cover for what are nothing more than pet peeves about language, Yagoda’s posts create a space and a rationale for people to mock others’ language and in particular to mock the language of young people (often university students, owing to the blog’s audience).  This shaming of young people’s language goes far beyond simple preference stating.  Indeed, I see signs of the very same ideologies and prejudices I talked about in my last blog post about business writers’ use of grammar to discriminate.  Take a look at the first comment from Yagoda’s post:

Finally someone else besides me is going crazy about the hegemony of the present tense! This has been bothering me for more than a few years in student writing. I’ve written innumerable marginal notes to the effect of, ‘What does our language have past tenses for, if not for writing about the past?’ Whatever factors may lie behind the use of the HP for all kinds of past time—not just when paraphrasing the ‘eternal present’ of a text, whether argument or narration—the result is that many students no longer know how to use sequence of tense properly. One more sign that English is becoming a foreign language in the mouths of many who speak it as their birthright.

We see that this reader gains a sense of validation for his pet peeves through Yagoda’s writing.  After expressing relief, he goes on to claim that “many students no longer know how to use sequence [sic] of tense properly”.  Yagoda’s and the poster’s shared pet peeves have now been transformed into axioms that students fail to follow in the words of this poster.  In the end, all of this is interpreted through the classic complaint of “the young people are ruining the language” (other commonly mentioned factors include how texting is ruining students’ writing, although check out linguist John McWhorter’s TED talk rebutting this idea), when the poster writes “One more sign that English is becoming a foreign language in the mouths of many who speak it as their birthright”.  This comment denies the communicative capacity of whoever these “many” (apparently the writer’s students) are.  The writer turns a pet peeve about a perfectly valid grammatical choice into a signal of linguistic deficiency (despite the fact that Yagoda’s post is replete with the rich purposes that the historical present can serve).  Such attitudes are most importantly baseless, but they’re also offensive.  What is also concerning is that negative attitudes like this are certainly not productive amongst educators who should be seeking to both affirm existing linguistic abilities among their students and also to expand their repertories.  They should, however, not be denying their students’ current abilities (however “tacky” they might be).

In the end, although we cannot be wholly responsible for how others interpret our work, I think it’s important for scholars to consider the reception that their work receives and if possible to respond when it contributes to the circulation of harmful ideologies and prejudices.  I hope then that Ben Yagoda, as an educator and a scholar, will consider the response his blog posts are receiving and respond accordingly.

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Posted in Prescriptivism and language prejudice
2 comments on “The blurry line between linguistic pet peeves and prejudice
  1. Jonathan Lee says:

    This is a thoughtful little essay. I think that I fundamentally disagree with you, though.

    It seems to me that Yagoda is championing more than his own arbitrary taste; he is commenting on the inability of many people to speak within a given “register,” to use the appropriate language within the appropriate setting and for the targeted audience.

    Maybe he’s wrong on one count: Surely the NPR and “popular press” type historians that so irritate him are *trying* to do that; i.e., they are trying to “paint a picture,” or “be conversational,” or “be good storytellers,” or whatever else they imagine will appeal to the typical NPR listener (educated, intelligent, but not necessarily “intellectual”). In other words, this author finds that speakers who employ HP when past tense would serve logically just as well are patronizing their audiences. (Terry Gross employs exactly this technique when she’s speaking to Southern or African American guests. She starts dropping all of her final G’s in gerunds and other -ing constructions, and trying to meet her guests “on their level.” It’s pretentious and awful.)

    But does this mean that the college students of the anonymous author whom you criticize shouldn’t learn to use tenses “properly,” given their audience? Is it wrong for students to learn that, no matter one’s moral qualms about such a fact, the fact remains that readers/listeners will judge them if they can’t operate with the jargon and within the linguistic register standard for their field? Sure, teachers should seek “to both affirm existing linguistic abilities among their students and also to expand their repertories,” but affirmation for affirmation’s sake is as unproductive as stupid prejudice. They may communicate really effectively among their peers by beginning every sentence with “Like” and ending every sentence with “you know” (or if you’re in South Africa, with “yeah”), but shouldn’t such mannerisms be drummed out of them at this stage, or at least shouldn’t they understand that they can hurt them in the long run? My guess is that you’re not a college professor. If you were, then your mind might be changed by the number of times you were to read sentences like “Abraham Lincoln issues the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, and the slaves are officially freed.”

    So I guess that I believe that a historian really should use the past tense for events that happened in the past, and the use of HP strikes me, too, as ineloquent and unnecessary. Arbitrary taste? Maybe. But writers and speakers are there to be judged, by criteria established by a particular reading culture.

  2. nsubtirelu says:

    Thanks for the extensive and well thought out response. It’s actually inspired me to put up another post about one of the issues that you raise (https://linguisticpulse.wordpress.com/2013/05/02/on-the-logics-of-language-yes-logics-with-an-s/). In particular, in this post I explain in more detail why annoyances about language are not matters of “correct” and “incorrect” but are in fact based in arbitrary preferences.

    Anyway, there are two issues that you’ve raised that I don’t really touch on in that post. The first is register. This is certainly an important topic to consider when thinking about the choices we make with our language. Registers are of course also arbitrary and they are fraught with even more difficulty in nailing down in any consistent or reasonable way. The example of the popular press I think is a good one for showing why someone would choose to draw on one register (that of the common conversational narrative, where historical present is common) as opposed to another academic historical writing (where apparently past tense is conventional). It certainly isn’t wrong for the popular press to draw on this register. You’ve suggested that it’s patronizing, but I would say that’s an unwarranted value judgment or speculation about the press’s intentions. Essentially to claim that the press is being patronizing you have to assume that they are somehow ‘lowering’ themselves to ‘the common people’. Of course, why would we assume that to write with historical present is to lower oneself or that not to use historical present somehow makes us superior?

    The other issue, and this I think is where register becomes more relevant anyway, is what to do about education if we are to take seriously the fact that linguistic diversity is not the same thing as being “wrong”. You seem to be rather dissatisfied with the suggestions I’ve made about how educators should be approaching issues of language. I think, however, that we don’t disagree on all of the issues you’ve raised. First and foremost, I’m not suggesting that we simply affirm students’ current competencies for the mere sake of doing so and then go on to never push them beyond their current capabilities. The second half of my suggestion is that we expand their repertoires (and the expansion of repertoires would constitute the bulk if not the entirety of the curriculum content). You mentioned register and this is a perfectly good word to use here. What I mean then is that we need to expand their register repertoires (or you could say genre repertoires, if you prefer that term). If students intend to write in the register of professional historians and as you’ve suggested the historical present tense is not a feature found in that register, then I think it’s perfectly legitimate for you to talk to the students about this issue. The difference between my own beliefs and those expressed by the comment I criticized in this post then really isn’t in the content of the curriculum. That is I’m not trying to tell people to avoid discussions of language or grammar. In my classes students analyze grammar extensively and we do talk about what choices are most appropriate for the registers they’re trying to write in (yes, I in fact do teach at a university). We look at examples of texts written in these registers to help us understand how effective, veteran writers do the things we want to do.

    The difference I am raising between my approach and the one advocated by the comment I posted is that I don’t interpret students’ lack of knowledge about academic writing conventions as a sign that they are lazy, stupid, incompetent, or anything like that. I assume it means that academic writing is an esoteric phenomenon practiced by a very small, privileged portion of the world’s population that the students are not a part of (at least not yet). Hence, I would never say that using the historical present in academic writing is a sign that someone does not control their own language properly (as the comment quoted in this post explicitly does). In fact, the effective use of the historical present is quite a good sign that they do control the language and can manipulate it for many everyday purposes.

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