4 Jan 2009

Crank prescriptivism

Submitted by Karl Hagen
Yeah, I know that some of you probably think the title to this post is redundant, but some attempts to prescribe (or proscribe) language are stranger than others. On Language Log, Arnold Zwicky writes about a whimsical proscription from Ambrose Bierce, along with someone who apparently believes that that as a complementizer can never be omitted. According to this person, "I know he is a good man" should really be "I know that he is a good man." That is indeed a strange notion, particularly when juxtaposed with the strong belief I've encountered among many of my students that whenever that can be omitted, it must be, presumably in the name of brevity. However, I think I can trump that prescriptive silliness. For some time now, a certain individual with A THEORY about the past perfect has been haunting the mailing list of the Assembly for the Teaching of English Grammar. He has been persisting in an attempt to claim that the past perfect is misused by almost everyone in print. And he posts long lists of supposedly aberrant sentences, for example (from Obama's The Audacity of Hope):
I had preserved my independence, my good name, and my marriage, all of which had been placed at risk the moment I set foot in the state capitol.
He believes that the underlined segments should be recast in the simple past. Exactly why he feels there is an error is a little unclear. The fact that not a single grammar or usage book believes there to be a problem, and that the best writers use the past perfect exactly this way, and have used it so for hundreds of years, gives him no pause. Clearly it just reflects the deplorable state of the language and the ignorance of those who teach and study it. Now it's certainly true that you can recast a sentence like this in the simple past, but the meaning changes. A sentence like the one above is implicitly relative to another action in the past, one that was almost certainly mentioned in the larger context of the passage from which the sentence is taken. If you rewrite the sentence in the simple past, it becomes just straight narration of past events, and may in fact become bad narration, since the events related in the past perfect are probably mentioned after the reference point, whereas in a straight narration that uses nothing but the simple past, you will probably find the events presented in sequential order. The explanations he has advanced are probably not worth picking apart in detail, since they are vague and self-contradictory. My own speculation is that his notion originates in the fact that the past perfect can, in some contexts, be omitted without a significant change in meaning. See The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language p. 147:
i She left after / as soon as / before he had spoken to her. ii She left after / as soon as / before he spoke to her.
Rather like my students who believe that any omissible that must be dropped, perhaps he has concluded that only one of these two forms can be right. He has, however, extended this prescription to contexts, such as the Obama sentence above, where the perfect does result in a significant change in meaning. It's also worth noting that this peculiar prescription runs exactly contrary to the advice given in many usage manuals, which suggest that whenever you have two past actions, the earlier must be in the past perfect. That advice is over-stated too, but at least it's a bit closer to real usage.