Though this event occured several years ago, when Conan still had his pinch-hitter slot on NBC, it has received renewed attention on social media in the last few days. I suspect people like seeing Garner, who looks distinctly self-satisfied while correcting Conan, getting schooled. For a society that accords nearly divine status to celebrities, we love seeing them brought low again.
Yet I see something deeper at play here. As Conan and Garner wrangle over one stupid word, I see status games in play. That’s why Garner needs to bring up Conan’s Ivy League education, and it also explains Conan’s triumphant cackle. Each of them wants to demonstrate their superiority to the other, which they can achieve by showcasing a piece of knowledge the other doesn’t share.
American novelist Ursula Le Guin, in her writing guide Steering the Craft, asserts that such contests are inherently political. “‘Correct grammar,’ ‘correct usage,’ are used as tests or shibboleths to form an in-group of those who speak and write English ‘correctly’ and an out-group of those who don’t.” We can see Conan and Garner doing exactly that above. As Le Guin concludes: “And guess which group has the power?”
In the hippie era, counterculture leaders frequently issued mimeographed broadsides against war, inequality, and other issues. As you’d expect from shoestring operations, the smeary ink and coarse paper often contained haphazard usage. Deputies of the status quo loved to reprint these broadsides, liberally coated in editorial marks, with postscripts asking activist youth if they really wanted to follow leaders with such poor command of English.
Many grammatical “rules” we learned in grade school were flatly made up in bygone days, often by nobility who wanted to exclude the hoi polloi from polite company. Poet John Dryden invented the “rule” that you can’t end a sentence with a preposition. I happen to know you can. I’ve done so many times. Yet teachers still use this “rule” to shame and humiliate students into compliance.
My favorite comparison is table service. Victorians of means loved to invent new pieces of flatware so they could boast in being the only one who knew how to use them “correctly.” Thus, Victorian formal dinners could involve place settings larger than some central London flats. The looks of disdain at people who couldn’t use a demitasse spoon, or couldn’t distinguish a stemmed from a stemless wine goblet, are legend.
Today, we recall that time with disbelief. How many of us ever need more than two forks, a knife, and a spoon? Maybe two spoons if we have both soup and dessert. Victorian silverware wars look abjectly silly. Yet we cling to absurd grammatical rules, which serve just as little value, with remarkable vigor.
Henry Fowler, whose Fowler's Modern English Usage first appeared in 1926 and is currently in its fourth edition, made up rules that nobody had ever previously observed. The New Yorker magazine, the New York Times, and Oxford University Press maintain their own style sheets, which are mutually contradictory, and contain rules most people have never seen. Their competition makes oyster forks look quaint.
Nowhere do these invented rules do more damage than classrooms. One teacher I worked with in grad school graded students down if they wrote “on the other hand” without first writing “on the one hand.” Another had seemingly arbitrary rules about when it was acceptable to use the words “I” and “you.” Students lived in fear of these teachers, because they couldn’t predict and adapt to their demands.
One student still sounded terrified, years later, recalling a middle school teacher’s reprimand before the whole class if he said “I’m done.” As the teacher put it: “Dinner is done! People are finished!” This rule is based on a distinction that has not been observed in spoken English in nearly 300 years. Unfortunately, my student got the real intended lesson: Shut up. And that lesson stuck far better than his academic subjects.
I understand why Conan and Garner’s pissing contest makes for good web chuckles. To an extent, we understand how stupid both of them look, getting exercised over a completely useless debate. Yet I think we also sympathize with Conan’s victory: as trivial as it is, we also wish we could have spoken that triumphantly to the pedants who wanted us to stop talking until we had internalized their rules.
I’d rather speak honestly than correctly. Yet perhaps that’s the message behind grammar lessons—My rules. My language. My truth. You shut up.