Greene seems to argue that the language sticklers are working to retard the progress of the language; but there’s a big difference between insisting on correct language usage and insisting upon the superiority of one language. Greene’s book consistently conflates these two things. He seems to accuse the people who do the one of also concurrently doing the other. As he writes:
Virtually since we have had written records, and no doubt before, language has distinguished Us from Them. But the connection between language and politics has become ever more explicit with the rise of modern nationalism. While sticklerism has been with us for a long time, it has been wedding to a particular kind of conservative nationalism in the modern era. Not all stickers are political conservatives or nationalists. But the rigid thinking behind sticklerism—“you must speak and write this way, and only this way”—dovetails with a rigid thinking about group belonging.
There’s a fascinating section in here about the recent history of South Africa. Part of what triggered the end of apartheid, apparently, was the way in the 1970s certain elements of the white government insisted that the country’s black majority learn to speak Afrikaans, a language used only by a minority of the white population. Black South Africans had no need to learn the language, because educated people all spoke English. Blacks who wanted education and good jobs needed to speak English. When the government forced the whole country to learn Afrikaans, blacks revolted and protested in the streets. This, according to Greene, was the beginning of the end of apartheid.
Well, interesting, but we’re getting pretty far away here from Lynn Truss and her semi-colons, aren’t we? Sure, both racial politics and punctuation have implications for language, but Greene doesn’t really demonstrate that the road to cultural intolerance is paved by copyeditors. Discussing both aspects of language in the same book, or investing both aspects with equal importance, seems odd.
The connection between punctuation and politics is important to note, for sure. It’s also important to explain that language apparently evolves through a lot of grammar “mistakes.” And yet the central facts of the book seem a little vague. Sure, language evolves, but grammar rules don’t just exist to thwart evolution. Does language evolve from bad writing, or just from good—if nonstandard—writing?
Consider, for instance, something like this. Barack Obama recently wrote on Twitter: “I want every child to head to school knowing their education is America’s priority. Let’s seize this moment and fix No Child Left Behind.”
Now this, technically, is wrong. “Every child” is singular. “Their education” should reference a plural noun. The phrases are not in agreement. But this is an example of the evolution of the English language. People frequently pair “their” with “everyone.” Obama (or, rather, the White House staffer in charge of the president’s Twitter account) surely knows the difference and uses this phrasing because every single person means, after all, multiple people. Now it’s wrong, but it’s becoming less wrong because it works—it would be rather awkward to use the correct “I want every child to head to school knowing HIS OR HER education is America’s priority”—and people use it frequently. In time the usage will change.
At the same time, however, we have something like this:
Although its status as a “movement” and “classical” has been questioned by some scholars and historians, notably those outside Germany, its growing, immediate importance has precipitated greater awareness of it within academia and within German scholarship. Since Goethe and Schiller’s particular views on the “classical” were seldom adopted by contemporaries, it has been remarked these were possibly “premature” in development; it is, notwithstanding, plain that their efforts made profound and lasting contributions in such areas as philosophy, science, literature, and aesthetics.
This body of text, from the Wikipedia entry on “Weimar Classicism,” doesn’t really contain any grammatical errors, but surely it’s a rather crappy paragraph. This language is bad because it just doesn’t really say much. That’s the problem with something like the passive voice—it inhibits understanding. It’s common enough in writing, but its popularity isn’t indicative of the evolution of language—at least I hope not.
Objection to this sort of thing doesn’t make you some jingoistic philistine; it just means you’re paying attention. Greene aims to defend the “diversity of language,” but there’s a difference between the evolution of language and people just writing unintelligibly.