More bad arguments for defensible positions

I'm generally not a fan of prescriptive grammar. Yes, there are occasions that call for using what is widely considered to be proper grammar. I don't like when students email me (and they do!) with "Hey prof, what article do u want us 2 read 4 class 2morrow?" However, I also am not entirely comfortable with people who sound like an Oxford don in casual conversation. Certain social situations call for certain levels of both sartorial and grammatical formality. I also love the flexibility offered by certain violations of grammar, such as split infinitives, verbal nouns, and ending sentences with prepositions. The use of a phrase such as "very unique" seems more akin to using the wrong fork for salad than to picking one's nose at the table. It also doesn't genuinely say much about a person's intelligence.

In today's On Language column in the NYT, Ammon Shea makes two really bad arguments against prescriptive grammar. I agree with you, but make the right argument!

Shea says:

We have all heard admonitions at some point or other that the word unique cannot be modified — a thing is either unique or it is not. This would be considerably more convincing if it were not so obviously untrue, as people modify unique quite frequently, and have done so for a long time.

This is what we call in philosophy 'begging the question' (and yes, I do insist, because it blurs a useful distinction, that you do not use 'beg the question' to mean 'raise the question'!). To beg the question is to assume your conclusion in the premises. Shea argues that because people use modifiers for 'unique,' it is correct to do so. I'm sure the militant grammarians among us would agree that people can use modifiers for unique, and that most people do. The grammarians, however, think that correct grammar is not necessarily the one of common consensus, but a sort of academically dispensed grammar from on high. So the grammarian would not be convinced by Shea.

What Shea, I think, meant, and what he should have said, is that language, by its nature, is a matter of social conventions. Words only have meaning because the majority of speakers of a certain language agree on meanings. To insist that a word really means one thing, even though almost everyone uses it another way, doesn't really make sense. Words are not attached to Platonic forms in the aether - a word only means what we are all agreed it means. And, as Shea points out, language changes. "Nice" used to mean something like "fastidious." But since the vast majority of English-speakers now use it to mean "kind," the word meaning has changed. It's not really fastidious. It was, but now it isn't. Most grammarians would agree. The question is why and how it changed. The reason it changed is because of social conventions.

The other bad argument Shea employs is:

Through the magic of Google Books you can now search through enormous numbers of books and magazines from the 19th century and see literally hundreds of writers who use more unique, less unique and even that bugbear of the purists, somewhat unique.

(And speaking of literally, the next time someone tells you that it cannot be used to mean aught but literal, you might point out that it has been used in various figurative and nonliteral senses for hundreds of years, by such literary figures as Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Richard Milhous Nixon.)

Whatever the grammarians agree is the codification of correct grammar, that codification is surely not located entirely in the works of great authors. It does seem possible, if there is a correct grammar, that a great author violated it. Just because Jane Austen said it doesn't mean it is correct.

Again, I agree with Shea. But his arguments are nothing a convinced grammarian should latch on to!


  1. Oh, NOOOOOOOO!!!! You're defending one of my signature linguistic pet peeves! "Very unique" drives me crazy. Is this a kind way of suggesting that I should get the hell over it?

    I know that I refer to him a great deal (because dude was absolutely brilliant), but David Foster Wallace wrote a particularly good essay on this subject.


  2. Verbing weirds language in a very unique way.

    To boldly go forward, we must decide to really eliminate the split infinitive.

    As for final prepositions, this is something up with which we should not put.

  3. I think what Shea suggests is that, in fact, the modified use of 'unique' (e.g., 'most unique') pre-dates the use as insistently unmodified. This is notable, as most correctors of the former usage will insist that the latter is the _only_ usage. Thus, it does not beg he question to point out that the modified use has existed for a long time.

  4. Dan, I'm sad to see "unique" go. And much more so "literally." But we can't stop the train of linguistic progress. In "Northanger Abbey," an intelligent character chides a slightly air-headed girl about "nice." She uses it to mean "kind" or "good," while he wants to preserve the meaning of "fastidious." Again, there is no real meaning of "unique" when you can't get everyone to agree what it means.

    My husband, in a lengthy conversation about unique, pointed out that since every object is unique with respect to position in space-time, we are always talking about degrees of uniqueness. There are also more and less relevant ways to be unique. Something can be trivially unique, such as an incidence of nose-scratching. Something can be non-trivially unique, but only in one way. Something can also be non-trivially unique in many, many ways, all of them relevant. So it can make sense to talk aboiut something "very unique": an object that is non-trivially unique in relevant ways.

    And my use of the phrase "militant grammarians" was a nod to DFW!