John McWhorter, Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care

[Note: This is the earliest book review I could locate, written in 2006 for the benefit of a small group of dear high school friends. Most of us had a charismatic English teacher in 9th grade who was passionate about grammar and, amazingly, was able to impart that passion to some of his 14 and 15 year old students. McWhorter’s book was published in 2003.]

John McWhorter is a former professor at Berkeley, now at the Manhattan Institute in New York. I was attracted to his book because, as the quotation on the cover states, the book addresses “America’s ineloquent babble” and “[c]}elebrates the English language and bemoans our present incapacity to use it in an elegant formal or elevated way.” While I am as likely as the next guy to bemoan America’s ineloquent babble and inelegant usages of the language of Chaucer and Shakespeare, I was more than a little surprised to find 19 sentences of the following nature in the book:

“…[T]his person is indistinguishable in mental sophistication from the semi-literate Third World villager who derives all of their information about the world beyond via conversation and gossip. (p.xxiv)”

“. . .[T]he upshot is that the speaker’s immediate access to vocabulary did not, at least in that segment of their utterance, even succeed in conveying just what they meant at all. (p.11).

“. . .[I]magine eavesdropping on a drunken businessman complaining under gaslight about what happened to them on the commodities market in the Panic of 1893 (.27-28).”

“. . .[T]he semi-literate dropout rarely had the ability to write about their lives later on (p.152).”

“In fact, no classical musician would venture such a gaffe, because now they are on the cultural defensive (p.204).”

And my favorite: “An English professor before the 1960s would never cast their ideas in prose of this kind, now matter how complex or nuanced their ideas might be, because the public norms of American society placed a high value on graceful prose composition (p.244).”

I asked myself throughout whether I was wrong in concluding that each of these sentences is grammatically incorrect, with – and I probably have this terminology wrong; far too many years have passed since the 9th grade — a singular subject that doesn’t correspond to the plural predicate. Have the rules of grammar so changed that these constructions no longer violate accepted rules?

I often hear constructions like these in spoken language and see them regularly in government memos, hardly a recommended venue for grammar purists. But I had never seen quite so many in a published book, let alone one by a language specialist pleading for more elegance in and reverence for the English language. My view is that these constructions are driven by political correctness: “his” is offensive to those who find it unfairly excludes the female half of the human race; “his or her” is awkward; and “her” sounds artificial or forced (and excludes the other half of the race). There is an easy solution that works most of the time, making the subject plural, e.g. “semi-literate dropouts,” “English professors before the 1960s” etc. But I still wonder whether the rules of grammar have changed, and whether I need to chill out and accept the new rules.

13 Comments

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13 responses to “John McWhorter, Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care

  1. Jane Gross

    I totally agree with you — thanks to Mr. Mason. This particular offense to good grammar is particularly heinous to me. In my working life, I was constantly correcting my co-workers in their written work — I’m sure they were very appreciative. (I can let it slide in oral communication, but it still offends.) Rise up! Don’t accept it!

  2. Fascinating to learn about a book on language which commits this fundamental goof. Had it not been for your review, I might have been tempted to bite, with such a title.

    I like to think I am not alone in thinking good old-fashioned subject/predicate agreement is important and correct, politically and otherwise.

  3. The two commentators above, Jane Gross and Tom Thompson, both had the 9th grade teacher I referred to in my introduction to McWhorter’s book (Jane also has the same mother and father—she’s my sister; Tom is a friend dating back to Little League days). The teacher in question conveyed the appreciation for grammar in part by requiring us to diagram sentences, even then considered outlandishly old-fashioned. We had to memorize vocabulary words – 3,001 to be exact — with constant re-testing; were supposed to write a one or two paragraph composition every day; and got into some pretty serious literature for 9th grade — Dickens (“Great Expectations,” and Happy Birthday, Charles, I’m sure you’ll continue to dazzle for at least the next 200 years!); Faulkner (“The Bear”); Shakespeare (“Julius Cesar,” with some memorizing of lines); and lots more. In sum, it was an intense class. I’m wondering if there are many or any 9th graders (ages 14 and 15) today getting this much thrown at them.

  4. Tom is right. “They” can’t reasonably be a substitute for “he” or “she”. But is it necessary to replace “he” or “she” with anything else? Nor is it a big blunder to say “he” instead of “she” or the other way round where either of the two would do.
    By the way I suppose Mr. McWhorter would readily agree that eloquence and formality or elevation, even coupled with elegance, are hardly the only criteria of good English, or any language, for that matter.

  5. By way of introduction, let me inform readers that Chanh served as my mentor during my first full year in France. Of Vietnamese origin, he spent almost his entire professional career in France as a law professor, with a specialty in commercial law, and is thus the author of countless articles on commercial law in French. More recently, in the comfort of retirement, he spelled out the highlights of his life in an autobiography in English. So he knows his way around both French and English, along with a whole bunch of other languages he is too modest to mention, and is in a great position to provide some perspective on what I maintain are fundamental grammatical mistakes contained in McWhorter’s book. My sense is that this particular mistake is nearly impossible in French. Whereas the third person plural in English is “they,” which could be either masculine or feminine, in French it’s either “ils” or “elles,” a giveaway on the gender. But all nouns have genders in French, unlike English; and many, maybe most, don’t have a lot to do with actual gender. Le professeur is the teacher, male or female; la douane is custom’s agent, regardless of the agent’s gender. I have noticed one change in French: the word avocat means lawyer (as well as avocado), and is masculine, un avocat. But in deference to gender and the many women lawyers, I sometimes see the term une avocate, a woman lawyer. This strikes me as simply an evolving new usage of the language, not a grammatical fault, which someday seems likely to be fully accepted by the arbiters of language – maybe it already is. But I leave it to Chanh to tell us whether he thinks the French are bending their grammar rules to avoid being politically incorrect, as I think we are clearly doing in English.

  6. I am grateful to Tom for his kind words even though I am afraid friendship prompted him to heap on me much more compliments than I deserve. Tom himself is well versed in French and therefore in its own ambiguities in the field of political correctness. Not long ago une pharmacienne was not a woman pharmacist but a pharmacist’s wife. In recent times it’s not unusual to read or hear une maire, une magistrate, even une auteure but some female cabinet ministers still insist on being referred to as Madame le Ministre and the general secretary of the French Academy as Madame le Secrétaire Perpétuel de l’Académie Française !

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