Monday, August 08, 2011

Stupid Grammar Tricks

No Caption Needed

This short little note about grammar is not about the basic rules of language that regulate how language is structured so that what we say makes sense. It isn’t about Noam Chomsky’s idea about transformative grammar and so forth. It is not about the basic, apparently hardwired rules that make “The cat sat on the mat”, different from “The mat sat on the cat”. Those are actual grammar rules governing exactly how people express themselves in speech and language.

No what I’m going to talk about are what are called prescriptive language rules. These are rules created, supposedly to avoid, vague, and incoherent ways of expressing yourself by avoiding certain uses of speech.
The problem with many of these prescriptive rules is that many of them are blanket prohibitions and a great many are simply colossally stupid.

These rules originally emerged as a way of distinguishing upper class speech from lower class speech and in many respects the rules are stunningly arbitrary and have absolutely no reason to exist. The rule in question does not help to clarify speech and in fact impoverishes it with absurd restrictions that don't make sense.

A classic example is the idiotic rule that you do not spit infinitives. Aside from the fact that this rule apparently only emerged in the 17th century the reason why this rule emerged is not clear, aside from distinguishing lower from upper class English.

One hypothesis is that it was a rule adapted from Latin. In Latin because of the very grammar of the language you cannot split infinitives. It just cannot be done. The idea is that it was decided that if you can not split infinitives in Latin you should not split infinitives in English. What!? Why Latin should dictate how to speak English, any more than the Chol Mayan verb order should dictate the verb order in English is quite beyond me. Perhaps one needs a lobotomy to truly understand why.1

As I said exactly why the rule emerged is not known. It could simply have been a completely arbitrary rule devised to distinguish upper from lower class English or it could have been imported from Latin for the same twit brained reason.

In English it is perfectly possible to split infinitives and make perfect sense, for example to not go, as against not to go. Or a more common pop culture version "to boldly go" as against "to go boldly". Both version make perfect sense. There is no reason to categorically avoid all split infinitives. If one was arguing that split infinitives sometimes sound clumsy and therefore it shouldn’t be done all the time that is another issue. Here the point is that a categorical rule forbidding it completely is simply stupid.

It is of interest that those who defend this idiot rule cannot give any reasons why this rule should be obeyed. They cannot explain how split infinitives in fact make speech less clear, because it doesn’t, or why Latin should dictate how English is spoken. Neither do they explain why since English allows you to split infinitives and make perfect sense why you should not split infinitives. Usually people who are welded to this brain-dead rule give examples of split infinitives that sound clumsy ignoring the cases where it works quite well. I should also point out that if you never split infinitives you sound quite pretentious and precious.

Another idiot rule is the infamous I and me rule. Some of the most convoluted idiocy is involved in trying to justify this piece of nonsense. Thus we get the absurdity that you say “between you and I” rather than “between you and me”, and thus sound like a pompous twit. Thus you should say for example “I and Josee are going to the store” rather than “Me and Josee are going to the store”.

The argument seems to that if a conjunction phrase as for example a subject case every word inside the phrase must have the same feature. The problem is that using I treats the phrase “Josee and I” as singular when together they are different from that so that “Josee and me” makes sense. After all no-one says “He and Josee is”, (I hope), but rather says “He and Josee are”.

The argument is made that since supposedly the cases do not “agree” that the phrase “You and me” is unclear. This is utter nonsense. The phrase is perfectly clear and I rather doubt anyone has ever had a problem understanding what it means or the obvious fact that it is to use a cliché “perfectly clear”.

Also it must be said saying “It is I”, rather than “It is me” is unbearably pretentious and only of use if one is being sarcastic or arch.2

Another indication that prescriptive language rules can be idiotic is the who / whom distinction. This is based on the idea that one term is a subject and the other an object. Thus you should say “Whom did you go to the store with?” and not “Who did you go to the store with?”.

The problem is that people have for quite some time been using who as both a subject and object, in just the same way as we use you rather than ye and you. Whom seems to be a word on its way out. Also once again what people are saying is perfectly clear the only problem seems to be in the minds of grammar commissars.

For example just try to replace “Who was there?” with “Whom was there?” And not sound like a prig.

Another example of grammar idiocy is the war conducted by some against the term hopefully. Thus we should not say “Hopefully Jean will find her wedding ring”, but “It is hoped that Jean will find her wedding ring”.

This rule is based on the notion that in English an adverb must refer to the actor. This is wrong on so many levels, but the most obvious is that it is simply false. Some English adverbs indicate the attitude of the speaker / writer towards what he / she is talking about. Thus we have words like predictably, generally, bluntly etc.3

And of course the alternatives given to hopefully are both pompous and sound idiotic.

A last piece of idiocy is the complaint that a statement like “Everyone returned to their seats”, is a grammar absurdity and should be replaced by “Everyone returned to his seat”. Or a more extreme example, “If anyone calls, tell them I can’t come to the phone” should be replaced with, “If anyone calls, tell him I can’t come to the phone”.

The “improvements” sound rather clumsy don’t they. And of course both improvements forget about women. The argument is that since everyone is singular there can’t be a plural pronoun later in the sentence. This indicates a tin ear to what people are saying. The first word everyone is not referring to a person but persons and the second word, in this case “them”, is simply a variable it could be zero or a million people.4

It would be easy to go on and on with examples of stupid grammar rules but the above is enough for the time being. Sometime later I might post about standard English and the need to speak and write clearly but that is another topic for another time.

All sorts of “reasons” are given for the rules, supposedly it helps keep speech clear; however in many respects these rules would make speech less clear. However they often simply boil down to sheer arbitrariness. Basically old rules created for pure snob reasons for ridiculous reasons. Such as it can’t be done in Latin, ergo it should not be done in English!
Finally there is the argument that we must have rules otherwise anarchy!! Stuff and nonsense. People have been speaking to each other for countless thousands of years without idiot prescriptive rules. Finally this is an admission that the person knows the rule is utterly arbitrary and can think of no reason for it.

1.Pinker, Steven, The Language Instinct, HarperPerennial, Toronto, 1994, pp. 385-387.

2. IBID, pp. 404-405.

3. IBID, pp. 394-396, 402-404.

4. IBID, pp. 390-392.

Pierre Cloutier

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