Are You a Language Maven?

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

language maven
" Grammar is error and error is grammar in much of the public mind" (Craig Hancock, "How Linguistics Can Inform the Teaching of Writing." The SAGE Handbook of Writing Development, 2009). (Gary S Chapman/Getty Images)

A language maven is an informal term popularized by journalist William Safire for a self-appointed authority on English usage. (Maven comes from the Yiddish word for "expert.") Also called a stickler and a grammar grouch.

Language mavens are generally prescriptive grammarians with little or no background in linguistics. An example of a contemporary language maven is British journalist Lynne Truss, author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation (2003).

Linguist and psychologist Steven Pinker notes that most of "the prescriptive rules of the language mavens are bits of folklore that originated for screwball reasons several hundred years ago" (The Language Instinct, 1994).

Examples and Observations

  • "You may be surprised, if not astonished, to learn that language mavens can get as muddled as the next guy when English changes. We often resist using fine old words in new ways, and cling to traditional usages that are almost certainly lost causes. . . . Change is inevitable, and some good words will be lost. And so on and so forth. Yes, I know all that, but I don't always like it."
    (Patricia O'Conner, Origins of the Specious. Random House, 2009)
  • A Maven's Duty
    "The term language maven is often applied to those who are given widespread language authority, including 'copy-editors, dictionary usage panelists, style manual and handbook writers, English teachers, essayists, columnists, and pundits' [Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct]. Devoting their careers to the presentation and promotion of standard grammar, these so-called language mavens are among the most publicly vocal about language; they are also the least flexible in their approach to traditional grammar. . . .

    "While the term language maven can be used to refer to anyone who takes a prescriptive of language, it is most often reserved for those who exalt standard grammar and decry and denounce other forms. It applies to those who, by claiming authority and expertise in language, feel a need, or even a duty, to prescribe to others the 'correct' form of language."
    (Susan Tamasi and Lamont Antieau, Language and Linguistic Diversity in the US: An Introduction. Routledge, 2015)
  • Screwball Rules
    "Most of the prescriptive rules of the language mavens are bits of folklore that originated for screwball reasons several hundred years ago. For as long as they have existed, speakers have flouted them, spawning identical plaints about the imminent decline of the language century after century. All the best writers in English at all periods, including Shakespeare and most of the mavens themselves, have been among the most flagrant flouters. The rules conform neither to logic nor to tradition, and if they were ever followed they would force writers into fuzzy, clumsy, incomprehensible prose, in which certain thoughts are not expressible at all."
    (Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct. Morrow, 1994)
  • The Archetypal Grammar Grouch
    "The archetypal grammar grouch feels that
    - English (or another language) is threatened as never before in its history.
    - Language education is at an all-time low.
    - Innovations, from pronunciation to vocabulary to grammar to slang, harm the language.
    - Technology is aiding and abetting this mess.
    - Before long, we will barely be able to communicate at all.
    - The stickler is part of a hardy band of people who simply refuse to see standards lowered.
    In other words, language 'sticklers' thrill in a sense of uniqueness: their language is especially precious, it is especially threatened, and it is especially threatened right now as opposed to other times in history. . . .

    "If you look at the historical record, you will find that language has always been in decline. Which means, really, that it never has."
    (Robert Lane Greene, You Are What You Speak. Delacorte, 2011)
  • What Do Language Mavens Do?
    "Even where the term maven is uncommon (as in Britain), the language maven is a recognizable species. . . .

    "What do language mavens do? Stereotypically, they write letters to newspapers deploring various solecisms and warning of linguistic decline. The press is an important forum for language mavenry in general: it is striking how many newspapers run regular language columns and how much feature space they devote to linguistic topics. . . .

    "Newspapers are not, however, the only reading matter available to people who count language among their recreational interests. Railway station bookstalls and public libraries offer a rich variety of popular literature about language: The Joy of Lex, The Gentle Art of Self-Defense abd Parliamo Glasgow can stay in print for years."
    (Deborah Cameron, Verbal Hygiene. Routledge, 1995)