The Curious Pleasure Of Peeving

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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.

This program aired on August 21, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.