Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Grammar Myths

If you don't already subscribe to Delancey Place, this excerpt might convince you. Five days a week you'll receive e-mail excerpts from a variety of nonfiction books. Subjects are as varied as the stars in the night: you'll read about ancient Rome, the Basque bombing of Guernica in Spain, Fidel Castro, or Central Park in New York. One thing you can be sure of, the writing is excellent.

Since this excerpt was about grammar, I thought that language arts teachers and writers might appreciate this expose of writing myths. These are quotes taken from John McWhorter, Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, Gotham, Copyright 2008 pp. 65-69,80:

"Take the idea that it is wrong to say If a student comes before I get there, they can slip their test under my office door, because student is singular and they 'is plural.' Linguists traditionally observe that esteemed writers have been using they as a gender-neutral pronoun for almost a thousand years. As far back as the 1400s, in the Sir Amadace story, one finds the likes of Iche mon in thayre degree ("Each man in their degree").

"Maybe when the sentence is as far back as Middle English, there is a sense that it is a different language on some level than what we speak - the archaic spelling alone cannot help but look vaguely maladroit. But Shakespeare is not assumed to have been in his cups when he wrote in The Comedy of Errors, 'There's not a man I meet but doth salute me / As I were their well-acquainted friend' (Act IV, Scene 111). Later, Thackeray in Vanity Fair tosses off 'A person can't help their birth.' ...

"Or there's the objection to nouns being used as verbs. These days, impact comes in for especial condemnation: The new rules are impacting the efficiency of the procedure. People lustily express that they do not 'like' this, endlessly writing in to language usage columnists about it. Or one does not 'like' the use of structure as in I structured the test to be as brief as possible.

"Well, okay--but that means you also don't 'like' the use of view, silence, worship, copy, outlaw, and countless other words that started as nouns and are now also verbs. Nor do many people shudder at the use of fax as a verb....

"Over the years, I have gotten the feeling that there isn't much linguists can do to cut through this. ... There are always books out that try to put linguists' point across. Back 1950, Robert Hall's Leave Your Language Alone! was all over the place, including a late edition kicking around in the house I grew up in. Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct, which includes a dazzling chapter on the grammar myths, has been one of the most popular books on language ever written. As I write, the flabbergastingly fecund David Crystal has just published another book in the tradition, The Fight for English: How Language Pundits Ate, Shot, and Left. But the air of frustration in Crystal's title points up how persistent the myths are. ...

"English is shot through with things that don't really follow. I'm the only one, amn't I? Shouldn't it be amn't after all? Aren't, note, is 'wrong' since are is used with you, we, and they, not I. There's no 'I are.' Aren't I? is thoroughly illogical - and yet if you decided to start saying amn't all the time, you would lose most of your friends and never get promotions. Except, actually, in parts of Scotland and Ireland where people actually do say amn't - in which case the rest of us think of them as 'quaint' rather than correct!"



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3 comments:

elysabeth said...

I was a bit confused after reading the posting. It feels like maybe you left off your point of view on the topic. But on the other hand, the English language has so many rules of usage, it's very difficult to know which one really is correct - lol. - E :)

elysabeth said...

I think that extra explanation paragraph helped - thanks - E :)

Joyce Moyer Hostetter said...

I love that language is always changing.

And who used the word fecund anymore? I had to look it up.