At Lynne Murphy’s long-ago tweeted suggestion, I listened to a debate between Grant Barrett, of A Way with Words, and Matthew Engel, of the BBC article from a few months ago that complained about American usages infecting British English. Through the first 15 minutes, both men were being quite reasonable, saying things that barely conflicted with each other and agreeing that there wasn’t much difference in their positions. (Largely because Engel had gone away from the bombastic note of his Americanisms article and now seemed genuinely surprised that Barrett thought Engel believed in what he had written.)

And then the floodgates opened. Barrett had just mentioned that when his show gets emails from peevers complaining about some supposed error, he replies with a suggestion that they look into the error, and think about why they dislike it. (Would that I had such patience in my responses!) Barrett noted that the peevers often follow this advice, learn something about how English works, and report that these once-teeth-gnashing usages have become at worst minor annoyances.

Engel didn’t care for this attempt to educate away such prejudices and went on the attack, presenting a disingenuous series of questions intended to reveal that Engel is both older and more British than Barrett. Therefore Engel concludes: “So you have no experience of how British English is spoken except on a brief stay?” Barrett responds: “I study language for a living … from an academic perspective, I have a very good understanding of the differences between the two dialects.” Engel’s response:

“So someone who’s lived in this country, not just me but everybody else who’s responded and supported [my column], they’re non-experts. They’ve lived through the changing of the language, but they’re non-experts. They know nothing about the way that language has changed, but what they need is you to try to teach them.”

I wouldn’t say that non-linguistically-trained language users know nothing of their language, but otherwise, I think Engel’s getting it! Wait, he’s elaborating further:

“I think that’s the most patronizing piece of nonsense I have ever heard in my life.”

Nope, never mind.

I don’t find the stance that experts know more than other people about stuff to be patronizing, but even if Engel does, that’s too bad because it’s, you know, true.* And it’s a rather odd position for Engel to take, since he’s a journalist, and journalism is kinda all about telling people things they don’t know — and often don’t know they don’t know.

Think about it analogically: I’ve been in a lot of motor vehicles, but that doesn’t make me an expert on their history, nor does it qualify me to figure out why the engine pings when it’s cold. I watch a lot (a lot) of football, but I couldn’t design effective plays. I cook a lot, but I’m not a master chef. I’ve walked through rainstorms, but I’m no meteorologist. Language is the same; everyone uses it, but only some people study it.

I don’t think that you have to be a linguist by training to be knowledgeable about English usage, but you do have to think about English scientifically. You need to check against available data when drawing your conclusions. You need to be aware that one’s own knowledge can be spotty or skewed. If you don’t even do those two things, you’re a crummy expert on English usage.

We, all of us, linguists and speakers alike, are unreliable narrators of our linguistic experience. We imagine our usage to be clearer than it actually is.** We have information that varies from spot-on to way off. We don’t realize what we say. If my own mother said that I speak one way, I’d have to look it up to be sure.***

Engel is right on exactly one point: it’s not that speakers of English know nothing of English. It’s just that they don’t know everything. As you readers know from my (occasional?) mistakes, my personal knowledge of English is limited. I was shocked to find out that some people say no end instead of to no end. I didn’t understand the double modal until a few years ago. I suffer from the recency illusion, from an unavoidable preference for Pittsburgh English, from a belief that my usages are probably standard. That’s why when I put together a post, I try not to say “X is right” or “X is wrong” based on my personal intuitions. I do due diligence, look up others’ research on the subject, delve into the archives, and map current usage. Before I say that I do or do not say something, I try to look through my own writings to see if I do, and if so when. Even then, with all of that going into it, I still know there’s a decent chance that I’ll only have part of the story and you will fill in the rest with comments and emails.

To have Engel saying that he and the other peevers have no need for linguists checking their work? Engel, who offered five Americanisms to start his column with only one of them actually coming from America? I’m sorry if he finds it patronizing for Barrett or anyone else to tell him he’s wrong and he ought to have consulted a linguist, but his indignance doesn’t magically make the linguists wrong and him right.

In fact, nothing of Engel’s position makes sense. He’s proposing that experience, not expertise, is sufficient, but I know a lot of people with bad spelling or grammar who are older than I am. Should I abandon the English I use and convert to theirs? After all, they’ve lived through the changes. And how does Engel know about Americanisms? I know he’s older than me, but I don’t think he’s spent as long in the U.S. as I have. Doesn’t he have to defer to me on Americanisms? Sorry, Engel old bean, but you know how you called hospitalize a “vile” word? It’s actually glorious. I know because I have more experience in American English than you.


*: There’re separate issues in that many so-called experts are not, that some have axes to grind, and that experts are only experts within their field of expertise, but the fact remains that experts are generally experts and non-experts generally are not.

**: The first time you ever read a transcript of your own speech can be an embarrassing, even unbelievable, affair. We do not speak anywhere near as clearly as we write (excepting people who write badly as well). See, for a not-too-bad example, this snippet of a telephone conversation.

***: Murray, Frazer, and Simon, writing on the usage of “needs done” in the Midwest, had one student tell them that he’d never used the construction in his life and that it was inappropriate for formal writing. Sure enough, he had written it in a paper he had submitted to them.

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