Tense past

Language Log brings us the story of, uh, a Twitter argument, I guess, since that’s the kind of thing that counts as news these days. Still, there is some actual stuff going on here, and my impression is that the issues involved are not entirely transparent to all observers. So I figured I’d field this one, seeing as I preemptively explained it a year ago.

The basic story is: Mirriam-Webster’s twitter account churns out some anodyne usage advice; a wad of stubble calling itself Gabriel Roth sort-of-objects to it with an unfocused series of douchey insinuations; MW hands him his ass; there is much rejoicing; Roth defends himself on Slate, where he is an editor (because of course a Slate editor is fundamentally clueless about writing).

The first-glance interpretation here is that MW’s original tweet is “descriptivist” and Roth’s objection is “prescriptivist,” but that doesn’t hold up. As Roth clarifies in his response, his objection was to neither the advice itself nor the act of giving that advice. But this seems to be all that’s available for him to respond to. So his objection has to be ideological; what he’s against is the underlying assumptions of the original tweet. Which is already pretty bad: criticizing the implications of something a brand posted on Twitter when you yourself don’t even understand what they are really ought to trigger a moderate-intensity Find Something Better To Do With Your Time Alarm.

I’m not sure where my line was crossed here, but I’m actually not going to be nice about this. Roth tries to align himself with “descriptivism” by approving of MW’s approach in this area, except look at how much of a snide piece of shit he’s being about it:

Its editors characterize their approach as “descriptivist,” which means they aim to reflect language as it exists, rather than to lay down the law, usage-wise. That orientation leads them to take a variety of admirable, progressive stances on lexicographic issues.

Implying without an argument and also without having the nerve to actually say it that a commitment to “descriptivism” is something at all unusual rather than the basic condition of being a dictionary in the first place. His condescension crescendos to the point where it’s difficult to imagine that he’s not jerking it to his own argument: “How fearless, how forward-looking of the editors at Merriam-Webster to include it!” Give me a fucking break. The entire intro of his piece is a super-weak attempted gotcha demonstrating that MW doesn’t actually put every common usage into the dictionary, as though that proves some kind of hypocrisy. This wouldn’t even be a good argument in the ideal case, but the actual example he uses is fucking pathetic. He points out that a common misspelling isn’t in the dictionary, as though that proves anything at all other than the fact that the dictionary people are basically competent at their jobs.1

And heaven forfend anyone thinking that this line of argument makes Roth some kind of conservative. He approvingly cites a tweet defending the word “genderqueer” in order to establish his Good Liberal Cred – and then has the gall to accuse someone else of trying too hard to look cool and with-it. The amount of projection here is really off the charts: Roth suspects that MW’s behavior (the behavior of, recall, a brand Twitter account) is “narcissistically gratifying,” when of course his entire response has no content other than narcissistic gratification. Not to mention the fact that feeling the need to pen a desperate, passive-aggressive defense against a completely standard-issue Twitter burn resulting from a fight that he started is stranger-than-fiction-level cowardly.

Anyway, douchebaggery aside, the point is that Roth’s argument here is familiar; it is a severely dumbed-down version of the argument that David Foster Wallace made in “Authority and American Usage.” As detailed back in babby’s second blog post, what Wallace is doing in that essay is actually not making a linguistic argument at all, but rather making a political argument in favor of authority via linguistics. Roth’s argument (such as it is) proceeds along the same lines as Wallace’s: he first set up a strawman version of “descripitivism” where “there are no rules,” then aligns himself with a more “reasonable” version of it in order to look sophisticated, but ultimately argues that, even in this case, arbitrary rules are required to prevent a descent into Hobbesian linguistic chaos. This is how Roth summarizes it:

There’s a lesson there about authority: Even when it’s doing its best to come off as chill, sometimes it has to put its foot down.

Everything about this is wrong. The dictionary is not an authority; it is a resource. It doesn’t have any kind of enforcement mechanism; it is something that you can consult as needed. It is not “trying to come off as chill,” it is simply stating the facts (remember, Roth agrees that the thing he was originally responding to was factually correct). And it is also not “putting its foot down” by not including misspellings, because the fact that a misspelling is not the same thing as an alternate usage is also just a fact.

So the part of the original tweet that bothered Roth was actually not the content at all: it was the word “fine.” The implication was that, instead of one thing or the other being right, multiple things were permissible. The thought of that scared him, and he instinctively cried out for mommy. Which, y’know, should have been your first fucking clue there, buddy: the dictionary is not your parent. The fact that Roth immediately and unquestioningly jumped to that analogy gives away the whole game; it’s the authoritarian tendency in miniature.2

Because that’s what we’re talking about here. The point of Wallace’s essay was to defend authoritarianism, and the point of Roth’s Twitter argument was the same thing. But Wallace was at least concerned with his authority having some kind of justification; Roth, amazingly, admits that “mad = angry” is completely uncontroversial, and yet it still makes him uncomfortable for an “authority” to okay it rather than sternly furrowing its brows at him. He prefers a dictionary that is wrong and authoritarian to one that is right and unauthoritarian. This is horrifying.

And this is why MW’s smackdown tweet was more insightful than the intern who queued it up probably realized. Because literally the only thing Roth has to go on in his entire argument is his own vague, undefined feelings. When Roth says that “we” are “ambivalent” about a lack of authority, what he actually means is “I,” and that’s all he means. That is literally his only justification for authoritarian dictionaryism: it makes him feel more comfortable. But guess what: it is in fact the case that no one cares how you feel.  We have to get this right, and if what we’re going to have to do makes you uncomfortable, then you just get to sit there and be fucking uncomfortable.

Authority has always been a bullshit contrivance. The issue is not that it’s diminished because people have attacked it, it’s that it persists because people desire it. Honesty, if we can’t even use our own words without cringing in anticipation of Stern Parent’s disapproval, we’re in deep shit. What’s really annoying is that this shouldn’t even be a problem. Dispensing with authority is vastly less scary than its alternative, and when it comes to language it’s like the easiest thing ever. Just stop freaking out and doubting yourself. Don’t bother trying to write “correctly”; just write good.

Anyway the important part is that reading claws of love dot com on a regular basis will provide you with a strong analytical foundation that will enable you to make sense of all the day’s issues, down to and including Twitter beefs. Have a good weekend.


  1. Did I mention that this guy is an editor at Slate? Because that’s never going to stop being funny. 
  2. A particularly insightful Langauge Log commenter hypothesizes that Roth is not looking for a dictionary so much as a dominatrix. 

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