Gurus, language scolds and comma queens

Last year I read Cathleen Schine’s novel The Grammarians, the tale of identical twins who share a lifelong passion for words. As babies they develop their own secret 48132246._UY200_language; a few years later their most beloved possession is not a stuffed animal but an edition of Webster’s Dictionary. As adults, however, their paths diverge. The older twin, Laurel, becomes a poet whose work celebrates the riches of the vernacular. The younger one, Daphne, finds fame as ‘the People’s Pedant’, an arch-prescriptivist whose writings become so popular she ends up writing a column for the New York Times.

I found that column hard to believe in. Not just because the story takes place at a time when William Safire, who wrote the Times’s ‘On Language’ column for 30 years, was still alive (he died in 2009 and the column was retired not long after). A fictional world doesn’t have to reproduce every detail of the real one. But I still couldn’t imagine the Times, that august ‘paper of record’, giving the slot it created for Safire to a woman. Safire was the kind of commentator who is often described as a ‘language guru’, meaning a person whose pronouncements on the use and abuse of language carry a particular kind of cultural weight. And when I say ‘a person’, Schine’s novel made me realise, what I actually mean is ‘a man’.

Don’t women write language columns too? The short answer is yes, sometimes. I can only think of one woman who’s done it for a major newspaper (Jan Freeman, who was the Boston Globe’s language columnist for more than a decade), but in today’s more diversified media landscape there are more women producing language commentary of all kinds (including some of the most popular language podcasts). But none of them are like Safire: they’re not seen, and wouldn’t want to be seen, as arbiters of usage or defenders of linguistic standards. Today’s media language commentators, men as well as women, are more interested in explaining than in opining or prescribing. In spirit they’re far closer to Laurel than to Daphne.

But the gurus still flourish in another part of the cultural forest–as purveyors of guidance on the rules of correct usage and the secrets of good prose style. In the anglophone world, the most revered authorities of this type are not only men, they’re also dead, white and upper-class. In Britain they include Henry Fowler (whose Modern 1plainwordsEnglish Usage first appeared in the 1920s), Sir Ernest Gowers (author of Plain Words, originally published in 1948 as a guide for civil servants), and George Orwell, whose rules for good writing in ‘Politics and the English Language’ are still endlessly quoted nearly 75 years on. In the US the list is headed by (William) Strunk and (E.B) White, whose 1959 book The Elements of Style is still held in such high regard by many educated Americans, Time magazine included it on a list of the 100 most influential nonfiction books published since 1923 (the year the magazine was founded). It also appears regularly on the many online lists which direct aspiring authors to ‘the X best books on writing’.

But on those lists the dead have some competition from the living. One popular recommendation is Stephen King’s On Writing; some compilers give a nod to Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style; and the most recently-updated lists acknowledge this genre’s newest star, Benjamin Dreyer, whose style-guide Dreyer’s English was published last year. Dreyer, a professional editor whose publicity describes him as ‘one of Twitter’s leading language gurus’, has been hailed as an authority for our times: he’s less patrician, less pedantic and less peremptory than his predecessors. But he too is, of course, a man. It’s hard to think of a woman who has been elevated to this status—whose pronouncements are quoted by the cognoscenti, or whose name has the kind of cachet that would prompt a publisher to commission ‘Jane Doe’s English’.

On the face of it this seems odd, since women are well represented in the professions gurus typically come from (editing, journalism, literary writing and teaching). As editors and teachers they are heavily involved in enforcing stylistic norms, and they may even be the hidden hands directing major corporate enterprises (like the Associated Press stylebook, whose current lead editor is Paula Froke). But few of the women who have made careers in this field have become the public faces of linguistic authority; and even those who have tend to be accorded a different (and lesser) status.

Consider, for instance, Kate L. Turabian (1893-1987), the creator and original author of A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses and Dissertations. To call this text ‘widely used’ would be an understatement: it has sold over nine million copies (five million of them during its author’s lifetime), and a recent survey of over a million college syllabi found that Turabian was the most frequently assigned female author (ahead of Toni Morrison, Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf), and the 18th most frequently cited author overall. If these figures are indicators of authority and influence, then Kate Turabian should be up there with Strunk and White. But that doesn’t seem to be quite how she’s remembered.

Turabian’s story is unusual, in that she didn’t come to style-guide writing by any of the 220px-Turabian_A_Manual_for_Writers_Ninth_Editionusual routes. Her formal education ended when she graduated from high school, and when she embarked on what would become her life’s work she was employed as a secretary at the University of Chicago, in the office that dealt with graduate students’ dissertations. Her experience in this role led her, in 1937, to produce a short pamphlet setting out the style rules dissertation writers should follow. She took or adapted these from the Chicago Manual of Style, produced for authors and editors by Chicago University Press. In 1947 the press itself began distributing her guide; over time the text expanded, and it was published in book form in 1955.

By the time Turabian died she was sufficiently well-known to merit obituaries in various newspapers. But some of these tributes seem remarkably condescending. Take this one, which originally appeared in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

Kate L. Turabian was our trusted guide and mentor, the absolute authority, the one who knew all there was to know about the strange world of proper term papers.… Our writing on term papers might be weak, our research haphazard, our insights sophomoric, but, thanks to Kate L. Turabian, our footnotes could always be absolutely flawless.

Turabian is memorialised as the First Lady of the Footnote, an ‘absolute authority’ on the dullest and least important details. It’s clear that the writer is poking fun at his younger self, but is he not also trivialising his subject (who did, undeniably, care about citation, but not to the exclusion of all else)? There’s a whiff here of the old stereotype of the schoolmarm, whose obsession with minutiae symbolizes her limited horizons. The same figure hovers over an appreciation written by a former colleague, who recalls Turabian as ‘a devout Episcopalian, an accomplished cook, an enthusiastic and adventurous traveller and a voracious reader’, and goes on to praise her ‘years of devoted service to the university, trudging in her sturdy oxfords from her apartment on the south side of the Midway to her office on the third floor of the administration building’.

The idea that women specialise in sweating the small stuff did not die with Kate Turabian. Mary Norris, for instance, writes on language for the New Yorker, where she was a copyeditor for many years, under the soubriquet ‘Comma Queen’. This is obviously a joke (self-deprecating wit is also a feature of the pieces themselves, as in this account of a copyeditors’ conference where a highlight was the announcement of some new rules about hyphenation); but it still trades on a stereotype of women like Norris (who has also published on subjects ranging from ancient Greek to mud-wrestling) as Miss Prisses whose main talent is fussing over trifles.

Another woman who has been dubbed ‘the queen of commas’ is Lynne Truss, whose 2004 bestseller Eats, Shoots and Leaves was entirely devoted to the subject of punctuation. What’s striking in her case is the hostile reception she got from heavyweight commentators and reviewers. Even her fellow-prescriptivists criticised what they perceived as her schoolmarmish bossiness (‘Ms Truss’, complains one such reader on Amazon, ‘came across as obsessive and lecturing’), while anti-prescriptivists denounced her as a fundamentalist, a bully and a fascist.

It’s true that Truss is, by her own account, a ‘stickler’; but is she really any more of a stickler, or any more obsessive about it, than any other popular prescriptivist? I can’t help wondering if the anger her book provoked reflected the same resentment of female authority we see in commentary on female politicians, who are also derided as bossy schoolmarms (the word ‘lecturing’ was used repeatedly about Hillary Clinton). Women who claim authority are always liable to be perceived as ‘uppity’ and unlikeable; and that’s a problem for prescriptivists, as it is for aspiring presidents, because laying down the law is what they do.

Some women have managed to avoid the ‘bossy schoolmarm’ trap. ggA good example is Mignon Fogarty, the former science writer and editor behind the ‘Grammar Girl’ brand. What she produces is a fairly traditional kind of content—advice on grammar, spelling, punctuation, commonly misused words, etc.—but it’s packaged in a less traditional way, using a persona, Grammar Girl, whose ponytailed and bespectacled avatar suggests a combination of the cutely girly and the slightly geeky. Grammar Girl’s advice is, in her own words, ‘fun and friendly’: she sounds less like a schoolmarm, and more like a friend or a classmate sharing tips she’s found helpful with her peers. Her selling point, in short, is not authority but approachability.

Approachability is also important to Ellen Jovin, proprietor of the Grammar Table, which22GRAMMARTABLE01-facebookJumbo-v2 she sets up on the streets of New York City so passing strangers can literally approach her. Her advice-giving persona, like Grammar Girl’s, is that of a friendly and non-judgmental peer. ‘I’m not there to make people feel bad’, she says. ‘I don’t like thinking, “Oh, you don’t know this thing, and that marks you as uneducated”‘.

But not all women are so eager to downplay their authority. The fictional Daphne seems to revel in hers: ‘I’m a language scold’, she announces, ‘and I like it’. ‘Scold’, of course, is not an entirely gender-neutral word (there used to be a bridle for that), but the kind of ‘scolding’ she’s talking about has a long history of being done by men. In modern times it’s been the particular province of right-wing curmudgeons like Kingsley Amis and John Humphrys. And recently a woman–the novelist Lionel Shriver–has placed herself squarely in that tradition. Last August she published a classic curmudgeonly piece in Harper’s complaining about what she referred to as ‘semantic drift’ (aka ‘people not using words properly’), and she has since followed up with a hatchet-job on ‘lefty lingo’. If the timing fit better I’d suspect that Daphne was modelled on her.

But surely, I hear you cry, you’re not defending Lionel Shriver’s reactionary bullshit, or Lynne Truss’s ‘zero tolerance’ for misplaced apostrophes? Well, no: I’m not a fan of either. I’m also not a fan of Orwell, Strunk and White, or in fact any of the gurus, living or dead. But another thing I’m not a fan of is double standards. Whatever you think of the enterprise itself, there’s no good reason why the women who engage in it should be treated any differently from the men. They may be no better, but they’re also no worse–no bossier, no more snobbish and no more obsessed with trivia. They deserve parity of esteem, and (if we feel that way) parity of abuse.

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