Reply to Halpern's "Catty Remarks" James Lyle The Radical Grammarian

view_column Reply to Halpern’s "Catty Remarks"

by James Lyle

Published in Issue No. 73 ~ June, 2003

Oh, dear. Radical Grammarian knew he was stepping onto a battlefield when he began the column entitled “Dangerous Creatures”, but foreknowledge makes it no less distressing when the bullets begin to fly.

Of course it is a great pleasure to receive Mark Halpern’s comments–he is a challenging commentator on linguistic matters, and his writings, what I know of them, are thoughtful and refreshingly free of the faults which he rightly deplores in the work of some prescriptivists. And he is quite right to chastise RG for accusing him of speaking warmly about John Simon–I did in fact misunderstand the passage he quoted as meaning that Halpern agreed generally with Simon’s positions. Under the intended interpretation, the comment does seem to be no more than just tepid.

But for the rest, I fear Halpern is putting words in RG’s mouth when he takes him to task for saying that Prescriptivists should be “guided by linguists”. Some of the linguists with whom Halpern has done battle for 20 years may have said so, but Radical Grammarian isn’t one of them, though he may have sprayed a tree or two in his time. (Nunberg isn’t one of them either, by the way. In fact, he argued the opposite, saying “we should no more ask linguistic scientists what sounds best than we should ask economists which distribution of property will be fairest.”) Like Halpern, RG has no wish to be held responsible for everything ever said by someone in his field.

What Radical Grammarian in fact said was that standards of usage should be accountable to known facts about language, and that usage debates should be informed by the findings of linguistics. That is quite a different matter from being accountable to linguists. It only means that this or that point of usage should never be justified on grounds which are demonstrably false, and that pronouncements on grammar, whatever their literary-moral-philosophical justification, should not be regarded as authoritative if they run counter to established fact. To Radical Grammarian, that sounds an awful lot like simply letting is “set the limits within which ought can do its work”. And while this position may not reach the height of being unanswerable and transparently correct, Radical Grammarian at least thinks it is a position with which Halpern can agree.

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After studying mathematics, literature, and linguistics, James Lyle earned a PhD from the University of Washington and taught English grammar and linguistics. Since then, he has gone to work on natural language processing technology for a largish software firm. He lives in Seattle with his wife and two cats.