Unintended consequences

Pas de V.F., désolée.

So I’m quietly editing one of literally hundreds of overdue eggcorns — the lovely image of being in (a) high dungeon — when I come across a cite from an academic publication that so strikingly illustrates Hartman-Skitt-McKean’s Law of Prescriptivist Retaliation that I hesitate at first to believe my eyes. I read it once, I read it twice, but no, the writer sounds far from being punning and playful. The venue is the journal College English, the year 1983, and the topic a raging controversy over who is licensed to dispense advice on English usage, and what it should be. In a letter to the editor, Paul Kaser of Kings River College, Reedley, CA, writes:

Newsweek’s Educational Division’s inaccurate touting of their “Forty Mistakes” as the most common errors of English usage hardly justifies Suzette Haden Elgin’s shrill denunciation of their effort (CE, September 1982). Her article gives the impression that the Newsweek staff members (perhaps mere journalists!) have been caught poaching on the royal academic preserve and therefore deserve to be slapped down and mocked with name-calling and populist disdain.

Is this why Professor Elgin got into such high dungeon over the list? Clearly she wants to attack exaggerated squeamishness over English usage, but need she, in doing so, insist that “I Love to Refer Back to the First Time We Met” and “I Called You No Less Than Three Times a Day” are not usage errors? As James Thurber warned, “You might as well fall flat on your face as lean over too far backwards.”

Professor Elgin demonstrates in her first sentence that she is not concerned with such nit-pickeries as misplaced modifiers (”I only wish …”), but this unconcern hardly gives her leave to denounce as pedants and quibblers those who are troubled by such sloppy use of the language. […]

Two Comments on Suzette Haden Elgin’s “The Top Forty Mistakes”. Paul Kaser, Bertram Lippman. _College English, Vol. 45, No. 8 (Dec., 1983), pp. 824-826_

Just like this impassioned letter, the first pages of both Suzette Haden Elgin’s original article and her reply to the criticism are accessible on JSTOR.

1 comment(s) for 'Unintended consequences'

  1. (Comment, 2007-06-07 19:56 )
    #1 — Jayen

    Hi, this is regarding your November 2005 entry “Oh bugger! (A public service announcement)”.

    I am afraid the history of the “Usage of the word Fuck” skit still has hidden depths. The mystic Osho (a.k.a. Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, 1931-1990) was recorded delivering almost the identical text on April 14, 1980, audio file here:


    and again on October 1 1987, video recording here:


    In the 1980 recording, he attributes the linguistic research to a “Tom from California, probably the one of Tom, Dick and Harry fame.” Hoping to have deepened, if not solved the mystery :-)

    – J.