Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Linguistic Skirmish

Language blogger (columnist? journalist?) John McIntyre took exception to David Bentley Hart's recent hilarious piece at First Things, Le Mot Juste, on the issue of grammatical peeves. McIntyre largely seems to miss the absurd, hyperbolic character of Hart's piece -- or at least doesn't fully grasp the significance of that fact.

First McIntyre responds to Hart's intentionally absurd opening sentence about "grammatical laxity leading to cannibalism" by pointing out that this is "a silly overstatement". Are you sure about that, John? Poor grammar doesn't really lead directly and swiftly to humans feasting on each other's flesh? I'm glad you're around to point these kinds of things out.

He goes on to inform us that Hart insists that his list of complaints is “not really the dilettante’s catalogue of petty annoyances it might at first appear to be”, apparently neglecting the fact that the piece is meant to be humorous, and that at the end of the article Hart does in fact concede that "perhaps this really is just a list of paltry private grievances, and the fate of civilization does not really hang in the balance." So much for context.

He then quibbles with Hart's opinion as to how "idyll" should be pronounced, while Hart doesn't make his case on that issue dogmatically in the first place, stating from the outset that it's "a matter of legitimate debate".

Ultimately the most legitimate matter of contention between the two seems to be over which dictionaries are worth a damn. But the fact that this is the only somewhat serious matter of debate renders McIntyre's piece self-defeating, as his central point is that peevers are bad and that Hart is a peever. But what could be more peevish than peevishly nitpicking another's peeves, which weren't presented in an altogether serious fashion in the first place?

The next day McIntyre lengthened his list of complaints, but instead aimed them at the comment section in response to Hart's piece (a much easier target), which had echoed some of Hart's general sentiments. Echoing McIntyre's argument, a blogger at The Economist going by the name of just 'Johnson' drew attention to the Hart piece and the responses by McIntyre, and in this comment section Professor Hart defended himself against the "dull-witted" reactions of those earnestly peeved by light-hearted, faux-peevery.


When Hart's piece came out, I linked a snoot friend of mine (who hosts the terrific podcast Take The Stand) to it, and he in turn linked McIntyre to it, which I did not know. I may have indirectly played a part in setting off this entire entertaining exchange.

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