Monday, December 29, 2008

When Mr. Fish becomes Mrs. Grundy

"With whom do I have the pleasure of speaking with?"

So said the AT&T customer rep to Stanley Fish, the New York Times' house intellectual, when he called to get his phone service changed.

This turned Mr. Fish into Mrs. Grundy. He complained to the rep about her solecism, and so began a round robin of musical phones that only worsened his woes with AT&T. (He admits he should have quit while he was ahead.)

He got a whole column out of the encounter, but I can't help thinking that he was arrogant in assuming he was obliged to correct somebody else's grammar even though he was not her professor.

Bad grammar makes me frown, but bad manners make me wince. Yes, he refers to himself as "an old grouch," but that doesn't give him carte blanche to humiliate an interlocutor.

The world is full of speech that intellectuals consider bad grammar, because language is ever-changing, especially in demotic territory. The educated and the sophisticated cling to the rules they were taught while the development of language passes them by. Their history is full of lost battles, such as the ones over split infinitives and "hopefully."

We should keep that in mind every time a member of what Mr. Fish might call the Great Unwashed utters a sentence that is "nonstandard," as the grammarians say. A hundred years from now that sentence might be considered perfectly "correct" English.

Fish can be a provocative columnist, but now and then an unpleasant high-handedness bubbles to the surface of his opinions, like academic swamp gas. Not long ago he wrote that something over $200,000 a year for a university post was way too low for a serious applicant.

Good thing that reached print before the economy tanked and half a million Americans lost their jobs.


  1. Sounds like he should join TEAL.

  2. I once knew an editor, a great one, who was so obsessed with his work that he would edit, with a pen, restaurant menus while at lunch.

    I often worried that a waiter, waitress or maitre d' would catch him at it and spit in his soup.