Sunday, November 2, 2008

Language Police

I'm probably an ingrate. A publicist sent me an e-mail offering me a free copy of "a new book from The Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar." I turned down the offer--I consider it unethical to accept a free copy of a book (a) that I probably won't read and (b) that I assume I'd give a hostile review to if I did read it.

The book is, according to the press release that the e-mail links to, Things That Make Us (Sic) [sic]: The Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar Takes on Madison Avenue, Hollywood, The White House, and The World, by Martha Brockenbrough. The cover of the book has "sic" in square brackets, while the press release has it in plain parens. So the square-bracketed "sic" was added by me. It appears from the press release that Brockenbrough is one of those people who make fun of others' spelling and punctuation errors. It would be nice if she were as diligent when vetting a press release that she's responsible for.

According to the press release, this is one of several "interesting grammatical tidbits you'll learn only from Martha Brockenbrough":

Remember that "irregardless" is an irregular word, just as underwear is an irregular hat. Please use "regardless" instead (and keep your underwear under there).

The first thing you might notice about this is that this tidbit has nothing to do with grammar. On closer reading, you'll also notice that it's incoherent. Brockenbrough tells us that "'irregardless' is an irregular word." What does that mean? I think she means it's wrong or unacceptable, but irregular doesn't mean that--it just means not regular. English is full of irregular verbs and nouns with irregular plurals. Irregular seems to be a poorly chosen word here. I can guess why she chose it. We've got regardless and irregardless, so let's use irregular, which is regular with ir- in front. The joke doesn't seem very good, but that's just my taste. And we note that regardless and irregardless are synonyms (if we grant for the sake of the moment's argument that irregardless is a word), while regular and irregular are not.

Not only is irregular a poorly chosen word here, but the analogy seems very poor. I realize (or assume) that Brockenbrough is going for humor, and that different kinds of analogies are used in humor. They can be very strong analogies that make us realize how ridiculous something is, or they can be just silly (I originally wrote "intentionally silly," but there are some humorists who use silly analogies that are intended to be strong). Brockenbrough tells us that "'irregardless' is an irregular word, just as underwear is an irregular hat"; "just as" suggests to me that she thinks she's making a very strong analogy. Underwear is indeed an irregular hat; you can use it as a hat, and people will think it's highly irregular. But underwear isn't useless; it works well as underwear. So if this analogy is any good, irregardless is useful; it just isn't useful as a word. If irregardless is useless, which I suspect is Brockenbrough's point, then the analogy is no good. It strikes me as neither strong nor silly, but just inept.

I don't mean to single Brockenbrough out. The problem is that many of these language-policing would-be humorists seem to care more about spelling, made-up words that they don't like, and the enforcement of made-up rules than they do about logic or accuracy.

2 comments:

Martha Brockenbrough said...

Ed,

I am the author of the book you wrote about. I'm commenting here to give you some food for thought.

If it's not ethical to accept a free book for review purposes because you think you won't like it, why is it ethical to criticize the book anyway without reading it? It seems like a question worth pondering.

In any case, if you *had* read it, you would know why I chose the word "irregular." For now, I will leave that a tantalizing mystery.

Because you work with books, you know how much time and effort is required and how little financial reward there is in creating one. Honestly, it's done for love more than anything. For you to dismiss my book publicly and write critically about what it's attempting to do without having read it is, quite possibly, a less-than-ethical thing to do.

In any case, I hope your blog readers do consider the book. They might not like it. They might find it quite funny. In either case, ten percent of my royalties are supporting the National Brain Tumor Society, so real people who are suffering will benefit with each copy sold.

Thanks for thinking about this.

Ed Absurdum said...

Martha,

Thank you for writing. I'm flattered and surprised that you're even aware of this blog.

It seems to me that I didn't actually criticize the book--I criticized the press release. Criticizing the press release gave me an opportunity to vent about the entire genre that you're book is part of (or appears to be part of).

I understand that unless you're--I don't know, John Grisham, someone like that--unless you write best-sellers, you're not getting rich from writing. I respect your doing that. Using a press release for a Grisham book as a jumping-off point for explaining why you don't like thrillers about attorneys is not the same as giving one of his books a negative review.

In a way, it's inappropriate for me to criticize anyone who uses their real name. Because of my employment situation, it would be foolhardy for me to use my name, but I try to avoid personal attacks. If you feel personally attacked by my comments, I truly apologize.

I congratulate you for donating a portion of your royalties to the National Brain Tumor Society. Not liking the language police genre, or the press release for your book, doesn't stop me from admiring you for this.

Some of my readers--or maybe even all one or two of them--may be tantalized by the mystery of "irregular." I am not.

Thanks again for writing.