The Usage Game: Catering to Perverts

Geoffrey K. Pullum
University of Edinburgh

[To be presented at the Cambridge Symposium on Usage Guides and Usage Problems, 26–27 June 2014.]


I am sure most educated users of works on grammar and usage believe that they seek a sensible relationship in which they are treated like grownups and provided with authoritative information about Standard English. There is a great deal of evidence, however, that what many of them really want is to be dominated, humiliated, and punished. They yearn, they positively lust, to be forced to use their language in certain ways and to be disciplined for any transgressions. One sign of this is that The Elements of Style, with its 105 pages of century-old maxims from Strunk and opinionated stylistic nonsense from White, far outsells Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, with its 978 pages of brilliant and clearly explained objective scholarship, about a century newer (and costing very little more). This poses a dilemma for usage guide authors. The advice of economics is of course to supply what the customer wants; but ethics may differ: usage guide authors find themselves in the role of pornographers serving a community of masochistic perverts. Worse, if they dare to provide evidence refuting myths about grammatical correctness in English they are attacked for lowering standards and promoting anarchy. I will review this problematic situation, and make some modest proposals about how the users of Standard English might be drawn out of their dark fantasy world into the daylight of mature and healthy linguistic behaviour.