The Perfect Imperfections of Kafka’s Metamorphosis

It’s not funny that a man, a Gregor Sama, awakes one day to discover that a he has transformed into “a monstrous vermin.” (Some readers have declared that Sama changed into a giant insect or a cockroach.) This concept could be funny, some would suggest, in the hands of more humorous writer. The plot could be less cerebral, more slapstick, and loaded with innuendo in other hands. The premise is just ripe for one-liners, hilarious getups, and situation comedy gold. In Franz Kafka’s hands, however, Metamorphosis is not only unfunny. It’s not even humorous. If the story didn’t have such a preposterous premise, we might call it tragic. As David Foster Wallace, suggests, however, that’s what makes the story so funny.

If a stubborn reader takes umbrage with the fact that some consider Kafka’s masterpiece Metamorphosis funny, they would have to admit that using such a disturbing transformation as a vehicle to explain human psychology is one of the finest literary definitions of the word clever.

For young, aspiring writers, Metamorphosis may also be one of the finest examples of Chekov’s razor we have in the literary canon. For what modern writer would attempt to write a story of a man turning into a bug without some sort of explanation of that transformation? reviewers would surely roast a modern writer at the stake for not setting this story up with a proper scientific explanation for how could a reader pay attention to such a story without sufficient explanation. They might even suggest that the omission is distracting. Moviegoers might require a detailed, computer-generated-imagery (CGI) visual description of this transformation, brought to you by the fine people from Lucas Films, LTD. A writer shouldn’t start a story after the transformation, modern audiences might complain. The transformation is the story, or at least the cool part of the story.

We can only guess that throughout the gestation of Metamorphosis Franz Kafka attempted some explanations, and that he couldn’t come up with one he considered satisfactory. Those of us who know literary techniques could also guess that at some point in the creative process, Kafka learned of Chekov’s razor, and Kafka began to believe that those explanations were of no value to anyone but himself, thus leading him to place the explanation on the editing room floor. The only explanation we get is, “Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams. He found himself in his bed into a monstrous vermin transformed.” Kafka might have deemed all preceding detail irrelevant and best left to the imagination of the reader.

Gregor’s dreams weren’t even horrific! Evil! or Maddening! Kafka does not lead the reader to believe the transformation was the result of the dreams. The dreams were “uneasy”. Subtle, in other words, and inconsequential to the story.

Kafka’s apparent adherence to Chekov’s razor informs the reader that the transformation, or metamorphosis, is not the story. Kafka apparently deemed the transformation so low on the scale of importance, in the story, that when his publisher informed him that a bug would be on the cover of the story, Kafka replied, “Not that, please not that!” Kafka may have hoped to attract readers with the premise of the transformation, he did title the story Metamorphosis after all, but he hoped that readers would approach the story with more nuance. If Kafka were alive today, and awash in modern lexicon, he might say that readers should read Metamorphosis from an “It is what it is” perspective and nothing more.

Although, Kafka spends some time revealing how the other characters react to Gregor’s transformation by screaming, fainting, and falling, he does not portray these reactions in a humorous manner that we could call overt. The mother falls over a table, and Gregor’s employer runs from the apartment. A reader, reading from the “more is always more” perspective would not be pleased with Franz Kafka, and Kafka might even find himself the subject of constructive criticism for Metamorphosis if he had written this story today.

“You could do so much more with these scenes,” one imagines a group of beta readers informing Franz Kafka, in a modern day writing circle. “Why don’t you have the sister, this Grete, vomit? You could then describe the vomit in intricate detail.” “What about having the father pee his pants in alarm? Bodily functions are always funny,” and Kafka might hear something along the lines of, “You’ve just left us hanging here, begging for more.”

In Kafka’s “it is what it is” hands, however, these reactions are portrayed in a serious, if not sad vein, as the victim of the metamorphosis becomes more ostracized from his own family due to his affliction. The humor, if there is any in this scene, is for the reader to define.

The lesson Metamorphosis provides to the aspiring writer that seeks to learn a lesson in style, is in the power of subtlety. The outlandish storyteller, seeking to provide modern lessons in disturbing and evocative imagery, learns in one reading of this story that the “it is what it is” principle of storytelling should be employed to lay a foundation of pedantic reality from which the reader can leap.

“It’s not that students don’t “get” Kafka’s humor,” David Foster Wallace said, postulating on the frustration of teaching Franz Kafka, “but that we’ve taught them to see humor as something you get –the same way we’ve taught them that a self is something you just have. No wonder they cannot appreciate the really central Kafka joke– that the horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from that horrific struggle. That our endless and impossible journey toward home is in fact our home. It’s hard to put into words up at the blackboard, believe me. You can tell them that maybe it’s good they don’t “get” Kafka. You can ask them to imagine his art as a kind of door. To envision us readers coming up and pounding on this door, pounding and pounding, not just wanting admission but needing it, we don’t know what it is but we can feel it, this total desperation to enter, pounding and pushing and kicking, etc. That, finally, the door opens … and it opens outward: we’ve been inside what we wanted all along. Das ist komisch (Translation: That’s really funny).”

Even to those of us who appreciate subtlety, it is difficult to read this quintessential Kafka story, Metamorphosis, without feeling a little letdown by the anti-climactic ending. The monstrous vermin, that is Gregor Samsa, dies without ceremony. The advent of his death is subtle and inconsequential. By the time Gregor succumbs to death, his family is glad to be rid of him. To them, he has become a burden and an embarrassment. The reader infers that the Samsa family members are already at peace with the loss of Gregor, but there is little evidence of this fact in the passages that follow the transformation. The mother does state that she wants to visit her son, at one point, but the family easily dissuades her from doing so. Her plea, we can only guess, is nothing more than a mother attempting to display motherly concern, and the idea that the other two family members are able to easily dissuade her suggests that her concern is largely self-serving symbolism. After the transformed Gregor finally dies, the Samsa family calls upon the maid to dispose of the carcass, in the manner they might any other burdensome vermin.

Kafka scholars state that he agreed that Metamorphosis had an unsatisfactory ending stating: “Unreadable ending. Imperfect almost to its very marrow.” After the initial reading of the story, this reader found himself letdown too. I fell prey to imagining the possibilities. I thought of other avenues for the story, great one-liners, hilarious getups, and the manner in which the situation could be weaved to comedic gold for others “to get”. The more I thought about Metamorphosis’ ending, the more I thought the imperfect ending might have been the perfect one. For, if as David Foster Wallace suggested, “The horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from that horrific struggle. That our endless and impossible journey toward home is in fact our home.”

If there is humor in Metamorphosis, it cannot be located from the subjective distance most might view a fantastical tale of a man who transforms into an insect of some sort. To my mind, it requires a long form, almost objective interpretation (if the term objective can be used to describe attempting to view the subject matter from the perspective of a senior citizen). If the reader is able to view this story from the perspective of one of the lucky few who live a long life, and that term lucky is relative and subjective for those around us view us as living beyond our expiration date. For, if we are one of those lucky few, we will begin to gain distance from what we meant throughout our life, and that struggle to establish, and re-establish ourselves will begin to wane, as it did for our loved ones when they began to age and metamorphosed into senile, old people who were incapable of taking care of themselves. Our loved ones were lucky enough to live long lives, but they eventually became a burden to us, as we all will when we become reduced to the perspective our loved ones will have of us. We will reach a point where they no longer cherish what we once were –when we took care of them and guided them through life– and it’s almost a relief to them that we’re gone, and we arrive at our anti-climactic ending that requires our loved ones pay others for our disposal.


Kinesthetic Learning in Sports

“Who is the best athlete of all-time?” That question, this debate, can be as intoxicating as watching the athletes perform. Who’s the best boxer of all-time, Muhammed Ali, or Mike Tyson? Was there a professional athlete more exciting to watch than Walter Payton? Does Michael Jordan have a peer in basketball? If you grew up in the Bill Russell, Will Chamberlain era, you think he does. Some avid fans could probably list off twenty to thirty athletes on their personal Mount Rushmore of sports, who are not listed here, but the greater question is not who is the best athlete, but how did they achieve elite, Mount Rushmore status? 

Personal preferences often play a role in a person’s list. There are also those who achieved rarefied air during their era that sportswriters often find criminally underrated in the historical record. Once we eliminate those two groups, we find a short list of elite athletes. What is the difference between the professional athletes who achieved rarefied air in their era and that small pack of elite athletes that we consider the best of all time? How does an elite athlete appear to execute to perfection every single time out, while another phenomenal athlete executes a majority of the time? What’s the difference between the natural gifts of a supreme athlete, like Allen Iverson versus a gym rat like Michael Jordan? One word. Practice. We’re talking about practice.

The theme of such bar stool discussions often centers around the physical exploits of said athlete, but as author David Wallace suggests, in a posthumous collection of his essays Both Flesh and Not, the physical may no longer be as instrumental as it once was in the separation between those in the upper echelon and the elite.

Most of us have participated in organized sports at one time or another in our lives, and most of us have experienced a point, in practice sessions, where we’ve withered under the demands of a demanding coach who pushed us to levels some may consider cruel and inhuman.

Kinesthetic learning (also known as tactile learning) is a style of learning devoted to physical activity, rather than listening to a lecture or watching a demonstration. These types are inclined to learn more by doing than they ever will by studying, contemplating, or actualizing. Those who learn in this kinesthetic manner are learners we call “do-ers”.

Even most doers do not have a level of internal discipline necessary to achieve an elite level. Most parents attempt to cultivate the creative and physical gifts their children display, and those parents seek to keep that focus varied and well rounded. For the purpose of this discussion, such desires may prove harmful. As the child may have trouble achieving the tunnel vision necessary to achieve a level of discipline required to achieve what those in the field call “autonomic responses”. In the wide variety of concerns a parent may have for their child, achieving autonomic responses might not be in the top 1,000. They want their children to succeed, but not so much that they deprive them of the joy of being young.

The creative mind needs constant stimulation, nuance, variation, and entertainment. A creative mind can suspend that need for creativity to learn the basics of anything, when that something is new, fresh, and exciting. Once that knowledge loses its “newness”, it no longer excites the child. At that point, they may begin to tune out much of the information that follows. Learning sports is fun, and athletic achievement can be exciting to a young child, but every child experiences a breaking point when they learn that if they are going to succeed in sports they must learn to avoid their creative inclinations.

Achieving success in sports requires an acute focus on the muscles involved in, say hitting a baseball, and there is little in the way of variation for how to approach to the ball, the point of contact, or the follow through. The creative mind may acknowledge the teacher’s bona fides in the quest to become proficient, but the more they cede to the creative portion of their brain, the more difficult it will be to fight the urge to personalize their play a little. The creative mind does not want to be an automaton, in other words. They want to look cool, they want to have fun, and they want to introduce some creativity in the process of their swing. If the child achieves some success on the playing field, they may begin to believe that they achieved that level of success on their own, and this may lead them to ignore their coaches on some level. They might want to introduce some individual nuance into their game. They might develop creative desires that lead to ideas on how they can succeed. The ability to ignore such desires or to learn the problems inherent in falling prey to them leads to what some might call an inhuman, machine-like mind, enhanced with massive amounts of discipline, such as that of a Roger Federer, to achieve levels of success in sports, and maintain it over time.

How did Roger Federer learn how to return a serve, how did he learn to return a 130 mile per hour (MPH) serve, and how did he learn to return such a serve in a manner that he could place it in a specific, and strategic, corner of the other player’s side of the court? In a David Foster Wallace essay, we receive a description of Federer’s exploits that have left tennis aficionados with their mouths hanging open for decades. Wallace terms these moments, moments when Federer separated from the pack of the phenomenal athlete to an elite status, as “Federer Moments”.

“Returning a 130 MPH tennis ball, in a successful manner, requires what’s sometimes called the kinesthetic sense, meaning the ability to control the body and its artificial extensions through complex and very quick systems of tasks. English has a whole cloud of terms for various parts of this ability: feel, touch, form, proprioception, coordination, hand-eye coordination, kinesthesia, grace, control, reflexes, and so on. For promising junior players, refining the kinesthetic sense is the main goal of the extreme day-to-day practice regimens we often hear about. The training here is both muscular and neurological. Hitting thousands of strokes, day after day, develops the ability to do by “feel” what cannot be done by regular conscious thought. Repetitive practice like this often appears tedious, or even cruel, to an outsider, but the outsider can’t feel what’s going on inside the player — tiny adjustments, over and over, and a sense of each change’s effects that gets more and more acute even as it recedes from normal consciousness.

“The upshot,” Wallace Continues. “Is that pro tennis involves intervals of time too brief for deliberate action. Temporally, we’re more in the operative range of reflexes, of pure physical reactions that bypass conscious thought. And yet an effective return of such a serve depends on a large set of decisions and physical adjustments that are a whole lot more involved and intentional than blinking, jumping when startled, etc.” 

The key, in other words, is to practice so often that the creative mind, and even conscious thought, do not enter into play. A player can return a serve with some creativity, by turning a wrist flat to achieve a flat return, and they can get a little top spin on a return by twisting the wrist a little at the point of impact. These descriptions of the proper return are what many consider elementary, even to those who only play tennis for recreation. For most tennis players, most of these elementary aspects of a proper return go out the window when a serve is flying at them at 130 mph. Even most of those listed in the top 100 seeds of professional tennis are satisfied just to return such a serve of that speed, but the elite athletes can return such a serve strategically. How does one achieve the degree of mental mobilization necessary to return such a serve with a left turning topspin that hits the weakest point of their opponent’s court? The short answer is that the kinesthetic learner has achieved a point where they’re no longer thinking, a result of what Wallace says others may perceive to be inhuman, cruel, and youth stealing hours, months, and years of practice to achieve a kinesthetic sense.

To suggest that this degree of kinesthetic learning is exclusive to tennis or exclusive to the return of a serve is an oversimplification of the comprehensive idea of kinesthetic learning, for it is now taught in every sport and in numerous situational events within those sports, until the student learns autonomic actions and reactions without thought.

“Do, or do not, there is no try,” says Yoda.

If Star Wars were to attempt capture the basics of kinesthetic learning to a point where Luke could use this kinesthetic sense, i.e. the force, against all of Darth Vader’s actions, the movies would’ve portrayed Luke in training for, at least, the first three episodes of the series, or episodes four, five,  and six for Star Wars purists. They would’ve wanted to age him, and portray him as doing nothing but training for these episodes. This wouldn’t have been very entertaining, of course, but it would’ve properly portrayed how intense this training can be.

Most people don’t have the aptitude to achieve a kinesthetic sense on this level, and they don’t have the discipline to endure exhaustive years of practice. Most will also never know such levels for they also don’t have the natural talent required to achieve Federer-level results from kinesthetic learning.

Sports, in America, used to be mano y mano. It used to be the ultimate, physical confrontation between a Bob Feller against a Ted Williams. The mental aspects of baseball, tennis, and all sports have always been a factor, as one athlete attempts to overpower his opponent with mental and physical prowess. There has also always been some association with this process among top tier athletes, but one has to wonder if the current prominence placed on psychological domination of a sport, in the manner Wallace describes, would shock even Ted Williams, the well renowned hitting aficionado of his day. He might have practiced more than others, and he may have studied his opponents for tendencies and signs of weakness, but did he practice to levels that some may consider inhuman, cruel, and youth stealing levels? Many considered the hours he spent honing his game legendary, in other words, but would he be shocked at the new levels of learning put forth by current sports’ psychologists?

Williams had mentors, and others who helped him focus on the intricacies of his swing, but this new focus on the “tiny adjustments, over and over, and a sense of each change’s effects that gets more and more acute even as it recedes from normal consciousness” probably did not enter into his world. This acute focus on kinesthetic learning in baseball, tennis, football, and all sports and kinesthetic learning has ticked up to levels that Ted Williams and Bob Feller may have found astounding. Williams may have watched Bob Feller’s game, and he may have detected some tendencies in Feller’s play, but he didn’t spend the mind-numbing hours watching game film that a Tony Gwynn did with his opponents. Tony Gwynn, and others, changed sports a little with intense tape study, but our current understanding of the process involved in succeeding in sports through this acute focus on repetitious kinesthetic learning has progressed to a science.

This psychological concentration on minutiae goes beyond the positioning of the thumb on a driver in golf, the tweak of the forearm in the tennis stroke, and all of the muscles involved in the follow through. It goes beyond the pure physical aspects of sports to the mental. We have known about some of these concentrations for eons, and the general idea behind them might not be a shock. The acute focus on the actions and reactions has increased tenfold over the decades, until the game no longer involves mano y mano confrontations at the plate, but one well-honed machine conditioned to the psychology of the game versus another equipped with the same.

deion1What separated Michael Jordan from the second best player in his era? What separated Deion Sanders from the second best cornerback of his era? I used to marvel at the athletic exploits of the Atlanta Falcon’s cornerback in his day. People would say that Deion isn’t a tackler, and that he was a liability on the Atlanta Falcons defense. “Why should we consider a defensive player great, if he isn’t a great tackler?” They would add that he was a liability against the run. “Who cares?” I said. “Do you see what that guy can do when the ball is in the air?” The hundreds of little snapshots that most people either don’t see, or talk about often define an athlete’s career, just like anyone else’s career. These moments are the moments of crunch time, when the ball is in the air. A professional athlete practices for such moments, they think about them, they eat and drink them, until they reach a point where they’re no longer thinking about them when they occur, and they’re acting and reacting with autonomic responses.

Most normal humans haven’t engaged in any activity to the point of achieving autonomic responses. Most normal humans engage in athletic activities for casual enjoyment, and they involve their kids in sports for the purpose of the character definition it can provide. Most do not subject themselves, or their kids, to the kind of “cruel, and inhumane” amount of practice that could steal a young person’s youth. As a result, most of us cannot comprehend how a man could return a serve of 130 mph and place it in that tiny spot that is his opponent’s greatest after serve weakness on a consistent basis.

Those involved in the science of sports clocked the 130 mph serve at .41 seconds, or the time it takes you to blink twice in rapid fashion, or a speed that defies the natural facilities of human reaction. On the flip side, there are other, more deliberate moments in sports. The time it takes a quarterback to throw to a receiver that a Deion Sanders is covering, for example. Depending on the quarterback, and the length of the throw, this could take a couple seconds from the time the quarterback releases the ball to the moment it hits Deion Sanders’ area. What happens in those seconds? I call this moment the blank space. In the blank space, athletes on every level know what to do, but they may not be able to accomplish it on a consistent basis. They might panic. Even the greatest of athletes panic in this small window of time, and this might cause them some confusion as they try to come to grips with the fact that their minds and body didn’t act in unison during that crucial moment in time. They had such belief in their ability, they thought they worked as hard as anyone to prepare for that moment and they failed. After the years and decades they spent practicing, they didn’t execute in the manner they know they should have. It can be painfully confusing. After reading Wallace’s description, and the descriptions of Federer’s workouts, these players may not have worked out to the point that some characterize as exhaustive and cruel amounts of practice required to reach a kinesthetic sense, or an autonomic response, to the ball being in the air. What we’re talking about here is practice. As much as former NBA great Allen Iverson tried to tell us it isn’t about practice, it’s pretty much everything. 

Those interested in this subject might also be interested in:

The Conspiracy of the NBA Western Conference Finals, in 2002

The Psychology of the Super Sports Fan

The Usage War: The Undermining of American Values

When I first heard the name Noam Chomsky, I learned that some regarded him as the father of modern linguistics, and I learned that he was considered a powerful force in America. How a man whose sole concern was language could have power outside the halls of academe confused me shortly after I dismissed him. The subject of linguistics seemed a narrow conceit with a narrow appeal. As my knowledge of political science grew, and I learned of the power of language, I learned of the power of this seemingly inconsequential subject, and how it has led to the least talked about “war” of our times.

The late author, David Foster Wallace, called it a usage war and he stated that it has been occurring since the late 60’s. Wallace’s primary concern was not the narrow definition of politics. Rather, he was concerned with the use of language, and the interpretation of it. This usage war is a war between two factions that the editor-in-chief of the controversial Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, named Philip Babcock Gove, {1} described as a battle between descriptivists and prescriptivists.

“The descriptivists,” Grove writes, “are concerned with the description of how language is used, and the prescriptivists are concerned with how the language should be used.”

“The late lexicographer Robert Burchfield furthered this description thusly: “A prescriptivist by and large regards (any) changes in the language as dangerous and resistible, and a descriptivist identifies new linguistic habits and records these changes in dictionaries and grammars with no indication that they might be unwelcome or at any rate debatable.” {2}

The descriptivists say that language is elastic, and it should bend to individual interpretations. Language, they say, should largely be without rules.

“Virtually all English language dictionaries today are descriptive. The editors will usually say that they are simply recording the language and how its words are used and spelled. Most Merriam-Webster dictionaries will note if certain words are deemed nonstandard or offensive by most users; however, the words are still included. Of modern dictionaries, only the Funk and Wagnall’s contains a certain amount of prescriptive advice. All the major dictionary publishers – Merriam-Webster, Times-Mirror, World Book, and Funk and Wagnall’s – will tell you that they are primarily descriptive.”{3}

Early on in life, we learned that if we were going to succeed in school, we would have to perfect our spelling and grammar. After we entered the real world, we learned that if we were going to succeed we would have to take it a step further and correct our speech to the codes in the political correct lexicon.

We can guess that nearly everyone has learned, at some point in time, the relative machinations of acceptable discourse. We can guess that anyone that has spoken, or written, on a professional level, has learned of the perceptive gains one can accumulate and lose with the use, and misuse, of language. We can also guess that most realize how others manipulate their audience through language. The latter may be the key to the descriptivist movement in linguistics today.

Our introduction to manipulated perceptions often occurs when we enter the workforce. We may see these perceptions parlayed in movies and television, but we don’t experience them firsthand until we enter the workplace and they directly affect us. At that point, it becomes clear how others use language to shift the power of daily life.

If this form of manipulation were limited to the workplace, that would be one thing. It would be powerful, but that power would be limited to that particular environment. As we have all witnessed when one successfully manipulates language, it doesn’t end when we clock out for the day. We accidentally, or incidentally, take these rules of usage, or speech codes, out of the workplace and into our everyday lives. David Foster Wallace catalogued these incremental actions and reactions in the book Consider the Lobster. It details the fact that lexicographers, like Phillip Babcock Gove, have used dictionaries, and other methods, as a foundation for a usage war that has been occurring in America since the late 60’s.

How many of us have used incorrect terminology that violates the current rules of usage? How many of us have used the words “reverse discrimination” as opposed to the more politically correct term “affirmative action”? How many of us have called an illegal immigrant an illegal immigrant, only to be corrected with the term “undocumented worker?” How many of us have had a boss, or members of the Human Resources department tell us, “I understand you have personal beliefs on this topic, but I hope you can see that it has no place in the workplace,” they say in so many words. “You don’t want to offend anyone, I know that. You’re a nice guy.” 

Most of us are nice people, and we don’t seek to offend the people we work with, our neighbors, or anyone else for that matter. To do this, we follow the speech codes handed down from the Human Resources department to help us get along with other people. We then, unconsciously, take those speech codes to the bar, to family functions, and to our home, until we find ourselves assimilated to the point that we’re correcting our friends.

“It’s a peccadillo,” they say, “a very slight sin, or offense, it’s not sexual relations with an intern. It’s a fib,” they say. “It’s not perjury before a grand jury. It’s “environmentalist” not “anti-corporate socialist”. It’s a “feminist” not a “man hating female who can find no other way to succeed”, “multiculturalist” not “racial quota advocate”, “rainforest” not “gathering of trees”, “sexually active” not “promiscuous”, “economic justice” not “socialism”, “fairness” not “socialism”. It’s “giving back” not “class envy”, and it’s “community organizer” not “radical agitator”. This is the war, and these are the little battles within that war that the descriptivists and the liberals have been waging against the “normal” prescriptive America lexicon for generations and they have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.

This desire to be nice to other people, and understand other cultures, is one of the advantages the descriptivists/liberals have in manipulating the language, and winning the usage wars. When we find a person that may be different from us in some manner, we want to know how best to get along with them. We want to know their sensitivities, in other words, so we do not accidentally violate them. The question that we should bring to the debate more often is how do people learn the sensitivities of others? Are these sensitivities internal, or are they taught to us through repeated messaging? Most people are insecure, and they don’t know how to demand satisfactory treatment, but they can learn. An individual can learn that something is offensive, and they can learn how to communicate that offense.

“What’s wrong with that,” is a common reply to this notion. “What’s wrong with teaching people how they should be treated? We all just want to get along with one another?”        

Prescriptivists would tell you that buried beneath all this “well-intentioned” manipulation of usage is the general loss of language authority. Prescriptivists ache over the inconsistencies brought to our language through slang, dialect, and other purposeful displays of ignorance regarding how the language works. They labor over the loss of standardized language, such as that in the classical works of a Geoffrey Chaucer. Most of them do not necessarily call for a return to Chaucer-era usage, but they are offended when we go to the opposite pole and allow words like “height” and “irregardless” into modern dictionaries. They also grow apoplectic when terms, such as “you is” and “she be” become more acceptable in our descriptivist lexicon. And They hide in a hole when standards of modernity allow sentences to begin with a conjunction, such as “and”, and they weep for the soul of language when casual conversation permits a sentence to end with an infinitive such as to.

Language provides cohesion in a society, and it provides rules that provide like-mindedness to a people that want to get along. It’s fine to celebrate individuality, and some differences inherent in a melting pot as large as America’s, but if you have nothing to bind people together the result can only be a degree of chaos.

A member of the descriptivism movement, on the other hand, celebrates the evolution of language:

“Frank Palmer wrote in Grammar: “What is correct and what is not correct is ultimately only a matter of what is accepted by society, for language is a matter of conventions within society.”

“John Lyons echoed this sentiment in Language and Linguistics: “There are no absolute standards of correctness in language.”

“Henry Sweet said of language that it is “partly rational, partly irrational and arbitrary.”

It may be arbitrary in Sweet’s theoretical world of linguists seeking to either ideologically change the culture, or update it to allow for vernaculars in the current social mores, but in the real world of America today are we doing our students, our language, or our culture any favors by constantly redefining usage? If our primary motivation for teaching arbitrary methods of usage is sensitivity to intellectual capacity, different cultures, and self-esteem is the culture as a whole made better in the long run?

On the ideological front, the descriptivism movement has successfully implemented a requirement that all writers now use the pronouns “they” and “he or she” if that writer is seeking a general description of what a general person may do, or think. Repeated use of the general pronoun “he” without qualifying it with the balanced usage of “she”, “they”, or “he or she” is not only seen as antiquated, but sexist, and incorrect. The reason it is antiquated, those of the descriptivism movement say, is that it harkens back to a patriarchal, White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) society.

If you work in an office, and you send out any form of communication to a team of people, you know how successful the descriptivism movement has been in infiltrating our language in this regard. Yet, there was a point in our history, a point in the not-so-distant past when no one knew enough to be offended by the repeated use of “he” as a general pronoun. No one that I know of regarded this as improper, much less incorrect. Years of repeated messaging have created ‘gender neutral’ solutions to the point that schools, workplaces, and friends in our daily lives suggest that using “he” as a general pronoun is not just sexist it is incorrect usage. Yet, they deem using the pronoun “she” as an acceptable alternative. If this complaint were limited to the narrow prism of politics, one could dismiss it as a member of the losing team’s hysteria, but we’re talking about the politics of language usage.

A political science professor once told our class that, in his opinion, law breaking became a little more acceptable when the federal government lowered the speed limit to fifty-five in 1974. His theory was that the fifty-five mile per hour speed limit seemed arbitrarily low to most people, and they considered it unreasonable. His theory was that most people were generally more law-abiding in the 50’s, and  –“regardless what you’ve read”– in the 60’s, but in the 70’s more people found the general idea of breaking the law more acceptable, and he deemed this 1974 unreasonable limit on speed to be the antecedent. His theory was that no one person, no matter how powerful their voice is in a society as large as ours, could successfully encourage more people to break the law, and that only the society could do this by creating a law that was seen as not only unreasonable, but a little foolish.

Whether or not his theory is correct, it illustrates the idea that seemingly insignificant issues can change minds en masse. Could one person, no matter how powerful they may be in a society, teach people to be offended more often for more power in that society? Can political linguists dictate a certain form of usage by suggesting that anyone that doesn’t assimilate does so with ulterior motives? Could it be said that Human Resource videos –that anyone that has been employed has spent countless hours watching– are not only being used to teach people how to get along with people different than them, but how those different people should be offended?

“Why does that person continues to use general pronoun “he” instead of “he or she” or “they” continue to do that? Are they trying to offend all the “shes” in the room?” 

Everything stated thus far is common knowledge to those of us who operate in public forums in which we interact with a wide variety of people. What some may not know is that this “usage war” for the hearts and minds of all language users extends to the production of dictionaries.

If this is true, how can a dictionary be ideological? There are prescriptivist dictionaries that call for “proper” interpretations and use of language, and there are descriptivist dictionaries that evolve with common use. “Usage experts”, such as David Foster Wallace, consider the creation of these two decidedly different dictionaries salvos in the Usage Wars “that have been under way ever since an editor named Phillip Babcock Gove first sought to apply the value-neutral principles of structural linguistics to lexicography in the 1971 Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language.”

“Gove’s response to the outrage expressed by those prescriptivist conservatives who howled at Gove’s inclusion of “OK” and “Ain’t” in his Third Edition of Webster’s Dictionary was: “A dictionary should have no truck with artificial notions of correctness or superiority. It should be descriptive and not prescriptive.” {4}

One of the other reasons that descriptivism eventually took hold is that it allowed for more “free form” writing. Descriptivism allows a writer to get their words down on paper without an overriding concern for proper communication. Descriptivism allows for expression without concern for proper grammar or a more formal, proper lexicon. It allowed a writer to brainstorm, free form, and journal without a “fussbudget” teacher correcting these thoughts into proper usage.

This was a relief to those that enjoyed expression without having to answer to a teacher that informed us we weren’t expressing correctly. How can one “express correctly” those of us that enjoyed expression asked. Without too much fear of refutation, I think we can say that the descriptivism movement won this argument for the reasons those that enjoyed creative expression brought forth. When one of my professors told me to get the expression down, and we’ll correct your spelling and grammar later, I considered myself liberated from what I considered the tyrannical barrier of grammatical dictates. It wasn’t too many professors later that I discovered teachers that went beyond the “correcting the spelling and grammar later” to the belief that the self-esteem of the writer was paramount. If the student doesn’t get discouraged, this theory on usage suggested, they are more apt to express themselves more often. They are more inclined to sign up for a class that doesn’t “badger” a student with constant concerns of systematic grammar, usage, semantics, rhetoric, and etymology. One argument states that colleges based this lowering of standards on economics, as much of what they did encouraged the student. Personal experience with this, along with the other examples listed above, paved the way for the descriptivism movement to move the language, and the culture, away from the prescriptivist rules of usage.

Some have said that the motivation for those in the descriptivism movement is not nearly as nefarious as those in the prescriptivism movement would have one believe. Descriptivists would have one believe that their goal was more an egalitarian attempt at inclusion and assimilation. They would have them believe that the prescriptivists’ grammar requirements, and lexicography, are exclusionary and elitist, but can we take these descriptivist interpretations and nuances into a job interview, a public speech, a formal letter, or even into a conversation among peers that we hope to impress? Can we succeed in the current climate of America today with language usage that is wide-open to a variety of interpretations?

An English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher once informed me that the “impossibly high standards” President George W. Bush, and his librarian wife, placed on her students, made her job more difficult. I conceded the fact that I was an outside looking in, listening to her complaints, and that I didn’t know the standards she had to deal with them on a daily basis. “But I said, “If we’re looking at the intention behind these impossibly high standards, could we say that they were put in place to assist these non-English speakers into learning the language at a level high enough for them to succeed in America?” This ESL teacher then complained that the standards didn’t take into account the varying cultures represented in her classroom. I again conceded to her knowledge of the particulars of these standards, but I added, “You’re theoretical recognition of other cultures is wonderful, and it has its place in our large multi-cultural society, but when one of your students sit for a job interview what chance do they have when competing against someone like the two of us that are well-versed in the “impossibly high prescriptivist, standard white English, and WASP” grammar and usage standards we were forced to learn in our class?”




{4} Wallace, David Foster. Consider the Lobster. New York, NY. Little Brown and Company, a Hachett Book Group. 2005. eBook.