The Little Old Lady and the Linguist


Once in a while, just to see how the other half lives, you ought to read Today's Education, an uplift and self-help journal put out by the National Education Association, a trade union, for the aid and abettance of its members. The articles are often remarkable demonstrations of the encouraging fact that you don't need a sense of humor in order to write funny copy.

In the April-May issue of that journal, we discovered a mildly entertaining piece by one James C. Bostain, identified only as "Linguist and Lecturer on Language" in Alexandria, Virginia. He is displeased with some supposed "grammarians" who claim that their "rules" are statements of fact rather than judgments.

Bostain starts off by solemnly announcing—keeping a straight face is especially important for a humorist—that "'I didn't eat nothing' is simply an alternative form of 'I didn't eat anything.'" From that only slightly muddled revelation (the second is not precisely a form of the first, except to those uninterested in fine distinctions), he goes on to "argue" thus:

Grammarians, trying to unify the three R's by making the principles of language as absolute as those of arithmetic, feel that a linguistic double negative ought to have a positive significance. Sometimes they feel so strongly on the question that, in the face of all the evidence, they assert that it does have a positive significance. This is a free country. We are entitled to our wishes and opinions, but it is important not to confuse them with facts.

Well, we figured that if there were one living grammarian on the face of the earth who might take such a feisty stand, it just had to be our faithful subscriber and friend, retired English (and Latin) teacher, and constant correspondent, forever fuming over the needlessly split infinitive and announcing, from the evidence of certain subtle but indubitable violations of the principle of parallel structure in the National Review, the imminent collapse of Western Culture as we know it, that implacable Grendel's Mother of grouchy grammarians, the Little Old Lady in Dubuque.

Persnickety? That dear lady is so persnickety that she wouldn't even hesitate to waggle her finger right in the face of a Linguist and Lecturer on Language who was so disrespectful of language as to say that one sentence is an "alternative form" of another. We can hear her now, patiently explaining that those who want to think precisely will be delighted to observe the purely conventional and so very useful distinction provided by alternative and alternate. They will not, therefore, heedlessly—and even rudely, as a gratuitous violation of one of the conventions that make civilization possible—use alternative as an alternate "form" of alternate.

So we sent our man in Dubuque to discover what that famous fussbudget had to say about the double negative:

OUR MAN: Is it your understanding, Ma'am, that a boy who says that he didn't eat nothing is really saying that he did eat something?

LITTLE OLD LADY: Pshaw! What it means, young man, is that unless someone cares enough to rap him a good one across the knuckles now and then, the poor child will be a little hungry all his life.

OM: But, Ma'am, what about this Mr. Bostain? He's an actual Linguist and Lecturer on Language. He's even good enough for the National Education Association, a very exclusive society devoted entirely to the life of the mind and made up of the nation's most accomplished scholars and intellectuals. Bostain is sure that grammarians like you will insist that a double negative does have "a positive significance."

LOL: Land o' Goshen. I'm not sure what to say to that. "I didn't eat nothing" surely does have a "positive significance." It's explicit and unqualified. What it does not have, as anyone who speaks English can tell, is an "affirmative meaning." It is only in a few contexts that positive is an appropriate antonym of negative.

OM: But haven't you proved Bostain's point? Although what he says is no less "wrong" than that double negative, you were able to understand him.

LOL: Well, bless your heart, young man, of course I was. But Mr. Bostain does require some figuring out, which is not the case with that neglected tyke who says that he didn't eat nothing. However, if it is Mr. Bostain's "point" that thoughtful and educated readers can figure out what language like his probably means, then I do agree. But I also believe that a man who styles himself a Linguist and Lecturer on Language owes us something better than a probable meaning. He should at least try to be as clear as the little boy who didn't eat nothing. We don't have to figure out what it is he means. Furthermore, that child doesn't owe us anything; he does not pretend to instruct us.

OM: Are those facts, Ma'am, or wishes and opinions?

LOL: They are judgments, sonny. They are statements about worth, reached through an intellectual process that depends on other statements. The greater your power of clear and accurate statement, the better your judgment.

OM: But Bostain says that you grammarians confuse your opinions and wishes with facts. Mightn't he say the same of your judgment?

LOL: He well might. Indeed, it seems inevitable. A man who speaks of confusing opinions and wishes with facts when he probably means mistaking wishes and opinions for facts seems little likely to have either the power or the habit of thoughtful discrimination, which would protect him from mistaking his wishes and opinions, and even his pretenses, for facts.

She is a hard case. But she's a teacher, and she asked us to send on to the "poor man" the one, absolute rule of grammar that might improve him: Silence is golden.

Richard Mitchell is the author of Less Than Words Can Say and the publisher of the Underground Grammarian, from which this column is adapted.