the article, which appeared in Harper's, i believe, amounts to a glowing review of Bryan Garner's A Dictionary of Modern American Usage. true to form, though, Wallace also gives us all the backstory including the 'seamy underbelly' of lexicography: the descriptivist/precriptivist divide. descriptivists would like a dictionary to reflect language the way people actually use it, insofar as possible, while prescriptivists tend to believe that a dictionary should tell us what's right and how to use words properly. i found it somewhat surprising that Wallace himself comes down firmly on the prescriptive side, proudly calling himself a SNOOT. that's a nice, cute term for something i've called a 'grammar nazi' or a 'big fat jerk' elsewhere on this blog. i'm sure he has his reasons for capitalizing it (and for once mispelling it as 'SNOT,' i'd like to add).
his precious reasons. wallace, garner, and snoots of their ilk are fond of reasoning about language. and the basic premise of 99% of logical arguments about language is... drumroll please... "the purpose of language is communication." in fact, this maxim is taken so keenly for granted that it is embedded only in parentheticals on linguistics departments' webpages. (Brown's for instance: How does the function of language (to communicate) interact with its structure?) so of course wallace feels justified in defending at least the prescriptivist rules that aid 'clarity and precision.'
i'd like to submit (usage liberal that i am) that language has more purposes than just communication. i even believe it goes beyond wallace's observation that the diction/style/accent we use communicates something about us. language is used to confuse, to distract, to entertain, to kill time, to remember, to make art, to perform ceremonies, all of which could be considered communicative under my usually broad definition... but beyond even that, the ways people judge each other based on language use are PART OF LANGUAGE ITSELF. its purpose is also to divide, include, grade and judge. these functions determine who gets listened to, and in extreme cases, who gets listened to is a matter of life and death.
wallace quotes a snoot friend of his: "listening to most people's English feels like watching somebody use a Stradivarius to pound nails." this analogy reveals more than a few things about the prescriptivist (snoot) perspective. first, it reveals that they consider language an object. an object that we all approach the same way from the outside and use for a determined purpose. they believe there is a right function and a wrong function for language, that that function is essentially benign and beautiful. wallace acts as though prejudice, awkwardness, and judgmentality are faults of people, and not built into language in any way.
These are tense linguistic times. Blame it on Heisenbergian Uncertainty or postmodern relativism or Image Over Substance or the ubiquity, of advertising and P.R. or the rise of Identity Politics or whatever you will — we live in an era of terrible preoccupation with presentation and interpretation. In rhetorical terms, certain long-held distinctions between the Ethical Appeal, Logical Appeal (= an argument's plausibility or soundness), and Pathetic Appeal (= an argument's emotional impact) have now pretty much collapsed — or rather the different sorts of Appeals now affect and are affected by one another in ways that make it almost impossible to advance an argument on "reason" alone.and i'd like to object. postmodernism is NOT relativism, though this is a common misconception. postmodernism never says 'everything is the same. it doesn't matter how we speak because everything is as good as everything else.' it says 'the distinctions we make in language are arbitrary, but they have to be made. we have to make the choice to have an official academic language, or to read a certain text a certain way. it's just VERY important that we consider why (and from what cultural standpoint) we're making those decisions.' wallace's distinciton between different rhetorical strategies is an old one--one of the oldest, in fact. but language has never been transparent. there has never been a 'logical' argument that was not also rhetorical and emotional. EVERY statement that has content also has form and also has a speaker who speaks from a particular perspective and whose words therefore have a particular emotional impact. as soon as a word enters the language (or is uttered... not the same thing, i guess) it's encoded with information about the social and mental status of those who use it. logic never has been and never will be free of language.
wallace finally praises garner's dictionary of modern usage because garner himself seems not to speak from a normal human position.
It's like he's so bland he's barely there. E.g., as this reviewer was finishing the book's final entry, it struck me that I had no idea whether Bryan Garner was black or white, gay or straight, Democrat or Dittohead. What was even more striking was that I hadn't once wondered about any of this up to now; something about Garner's lexical persona kept me ever from asking where the guy was coming from or what particular agendas or ideologies were informing what he had admitted right up front were "value judgments."that is, according to wallace, the perfect person to judge language is barely a person at all. garner lays bare his assumptions, but doesn't admit the sociocultural ground he makes them from (although i'll lay 20-to-1 he's white). this is perfection in scientific distance and objectivity. maybe it's a great way to write a text book, but it misses something fundamentally beautiful about what language is: inconsistent and ever-changing, as anything determined by everyone in the world all at once has to be.