Acocella misunderstood my essay on usage in the American Heritage Dictionary. It never declares that “there are no rules” but, rather, begins from the opposite premise: “What kind of fact are you looking up when you look up a word in the dictionary? A fact it certainly is. It is not just a matter of opinion that there is no such word as misunderestimated, that the citizens of modern Greece are Greeks and not Grecians, and that divisive policies Balkanize rather than vulcanize society.” My goal was to use the answer to this question to distinguish bogus rules of usage from defensible ones. One cause of bogus rules is a phenomenon called false consensus, in which, say, no expert believes that split infinitives are ungrammatical, but everyone mistakenly thinks that everyone else believes they are. A false consensus can solidify when people fear censure for flouting it, as they did during witch hunts, Red scares, and other popular delusions. Acocella got distracted by the example, imagining the “clear political meaning” that “prescriptivists are witch-hunters, Red-baiters.” It is like reading an explanation of global warming and mounting an indignant defense of greenhouses. Acocella shoehorns her misunderstanding into the hoary narrative in which usage debates are a kind of class warfare, and excoriated the Dictionary for hypocrisy in publishing my supposedly anti-prescriptivist essay. This pointless dudgeon could have been avoided had she looked up the difference between “simile” and “analogy.”
Steven Pinker, writing to The New Yorker in response to Joan Acocella’s really awful recent essay-review on English grammar. He could have been harsher, honestly.