In case of a language usage emergency: Diane Gladow mans the Grammar Hotline desk at Emporia State University. (AP File Photo)

In the 15 years I’ve been writing about the English language, I’ve learned a lot, but one question remains as baffling as ever: Why do people love their language peeves so dearly?

We all outgrow our faith in Santa Claus and the tooth fairy. We leave behind our middle-school fashion mandates. But if your ninth-grade English teacher forbade starting a sentence with “and” or “but,” you may well grow up to be a middle-aged peever, still trying to tell the world that it’s a stylistic sin. (For the record: Starting sentences with “and” and “but” was never shunned by writers or disparaged by grammar authorities.)

Ritual complaint is part of our daily entertainment, of course. Everyone needs to grumble about life’s little irritations – hazardous blister packs, Post Office snafus, computer “help” lines. But these conversations are ephemeral: Newspapers and magazines don’t invite readers to publish their minor annoyances. But they do ask for “most hated usages,” and readers by the thousands respond, eager for the world to know that they just can’t stand it – “at the end of the day” or “most unique” or “I could care less” or “moist.”

The British tabloids love this stuff – it’s a cheap, easy way to draw eyeballs to a website – but tonier publications are not immune. The Atlantic Wire recently posted a list of reader-contributed “Despicable Words,” most of them on the list only because someone out there had a keyboard and an opinion. It’s a meaningless exercise, its only purpose to lure addicts to a peevefest.

The usual explanation for peeving is that it’s how we signal our membership in an educated elite. The more fine points of usage you can cite – whether they’re facts of standard English or popular fabrications – the better. Many of them are “so psychologically unnatural that only those with access to the right schooling can abide by them,” wrote Harvard cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, so “they serve as shibboleths, differentiating the elite from the rabble.”

Mark Liberman, a linguist at the University of Pennsylvania, also explored the peeving phenomenon a few years ago at the linguistics blog Language Log. His conclusion: “Social annoyance and public griping reinforce each other.” You’re irritated by some group behavior – early-morning leaf blowing, low-hanging jeans wearing – and you complain to friends and acquaintances. Their agreement buttresses and solidifies your righteous irritation.

“You might trade anecdotes around the coffee machine or the dinner table, or write a letter to the editor. People enjoy listening in groups to skillful expressions of social annoyance, and so stand-up comedians do a lot of this. Cartoons and newspaper columns often express similar feelings, and allow you to join in by putting a clipping or printout up on your refrigerator or your office door.”

The exchange is not really about leaf blowers or language, Liberman says. “The real key is the public ritual that [journalist] Christopher Howse called ‘naming and shaming,’ which helps the group to converge on a set of norms.” In other words, we’re congratulating ourselves and scorning the unenlightened when we share our aversion to “thusly” or “utilize.”

Other caste markers – jewelry and jeans, cars and countertops – can also serve to advertise class, education, success. But they only work well in smaller social groups; what’s deemed stylish in Savannah could be kitsch in New York. And you can’t rank strangers by their mastery of Latin or the tango; you have no idea whether they are classicists or klutzes, and most people won’t care.

But our common language, because it’s ubiquitous, is the ideal medium for this exercise. Everyone has to speak or write, and when they do, we all get to rate their performance.

Is this the point of peeving, then – just to show off our language learning? If so, it’s worth remembering that quoting the rules proves nothing about our ability to use the language effectively. (“Them that can, do” goes the old saying; “them that can’t, teach.”)

And as I’ve argued before, there’s a different kind of language superiority that habitual peevers could aspire to; they could become peeve debunkers, helping to spread the truth about usage history instead of embracing any old rule (or “rule”) that crosses their path. Some of this is going on, very entertainingly, in the language-blog world; check out John McIntyre’s You Don’t Say and Gabe Doyle’s Motivated Grammar for a sample. Joining the peevers is human nature, but beating them might be more fun.

Tags: Language

The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • LisaMc

    Not only do peevers love their peeves, but many get hostile if someone tries to explain that the “rule” they’re peeving about is not, in fact, a legitimate rule of English. Rather than being freed from the peeve, they cling to it all the harder.

  • Jonathon Owen

    LisaMc: And not only that, but they’ll probably think that you’re some sort of linguistic anarchist who believes in tearing down all the rules of language. Believing that some rules are bunk is not the same as believing that there should be no rules.

  • Jan

    Love this article. But moist? What’s wrong with moist?

  • Kristi H

    “The reality is that” (Au favorite in current edit).

  • James

    This article is unfortunately too strong on opinion and too weak on specifics. It does not really demonstrate the prevalence or seriousness of “peevishness”–much less distinguish it from a more or less useful sort of discipline or consistency in expression.

  • Pingback: A linguist in the rough? | As a Linguist…()

  • Pingback: This Week’s Language Blog Roundup: Taboo initials, language peeves, and more | Wordnik()

  • SnarkyEyeCanBe

    I don’t care WHAT you say…there should be a prison term for the use of “impact” by any person with a body temperature who uses it to mean anything other than “a forceful contact between two objects.” So there.

  • rockhauler

    peeving is very entertaining. my favorite is a central massachusetts idiom (i think): “so don’t i.” huh? i wonder what a “legitimate” rule is anyway. isn’t language a living thing, subject to changeability?

  • Mack

    And as you will note, I use “but” to begin sentences, too. But I do get riled when “less” is used instead of “fewer,” particularly in labeling and advertising. One organization that gets it right, and kudos to them, is “Newman’s Own!”

  • Kathy Powers

    As of yet, my son and myself are basically thrilled with the reality of language’s decline. And youse will be in agreeance that at this moment in time, it hasn’t hurt nobody. Know what I mean?

  • Pingback: Weekly favorites (Sep 3-9) | Adventures in Freelance Translation()