Jul 23, 2007

cuffing the language police

Eugene Volokh on the trouble with grammatical prescriptivism:
So if you're a prescriptivist, I might not be able to persuade you to convert to descriptivism. But at least I hope that some prescriptivists may be convinced to be more careful about the prescriptivist claims they make. If they argue that the rules of good grammar should be set by authorities, they ought to explain which authorities support the rule they're invoking, and why those authorities — as opposed to whatever rival authorities there may be — are the ones that we should see as binding.
Amen, amen.

The event that most shattered my confidence in The Grammatical Argument From Authority was a clash with a professor in my master's program over the use of "effect" versus "affect." For her thesis, a fellow candidate wished to use a title much like this:
The Effect of Scripted Instruction on Grammatical Achievement
The professor, in a lecture to the class, swore that "effect" was wrong, that the title should read "The Affect of..." instead.

My jaw dropped open and has since failed to properly close. First, I noted that "affect," unless referring to one's emotional state, is widely considered a verb. "Effect" would be the correct noun form. I even pulled out a dictionary to make my case.

The professor was adamant. "In education," she asserted, "'affect' is the proper form."

I had severe doubts, and marched off to the library to see what ERIC had to say. Judge for yourself:
"The Effect of..." has 14,587 hits.
"The Affect of..." has but 44.
At this point, a rational person would say, "Yeah, Jim, I guess you're right. 'The effect of' is actually a common construction in educational research. I don't want my students to publish a thesis that'll make them look ignorant. 'The effect of' it is."

Not my prof. She sputtered and insisted I was wrong.

In the end, I told my peers to avoid the unnecessary showdown and use "The impact of" instead. After all, they had to publish their thesis to graduate--and they had to have their prof's approval.

I learned a valuable lesson, especially important for the budding teacher that I was: teachers, when publicly refusing to admit an error, and when standing solely on the shoals of their authority, are supreme assholes. I swore to never become one. I hope I've lived up to that oath.

Update: Sasha Volokh's entry is worth reading, too.

1 comment:

TeacherRefPoet said...

In short, if a student asks "why," we'd damned well better have a response beyond "because I said so."

Sounds reasonable enough.

What a turd that professor was. No jury would have convicted you for boxing her ears.