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5/05/2005

Grammar

Yesterday I posted a bit about the 'Usage Wars', the debate between Prescriptivists, who believe in the normative force of grammatical rules, and Descriptivists, who believe the lexicographers should stick to describing language the way it is actually used. This got me thinking about language-related matters. I'm a pretty strident Descriptivist on this issue, so I tend not to get to bent out of shape about these things.

One thing that is bemoaned by nearly everyone who knows better is the usage of the phrase "begs the question" to mean something like "raises the question," as opposed to its traditional ('correct' if you're a Prescriptivist) meaning (presupposing (usually covertly or unconsciously) that which you are trying to prove, a.k.a. circular reasoning). Even Descriptivists like myself lament this, since "begging the question" is such a useful phrase, and it would be a shame to lose it.

(A similar case is the use of the word "deconstruct" to mean "analyze" or "critique" (usually for the sake of denouncement). For example, Powerline's Ass Missile recently referred to "Hugh Hewitt's deconstruction of a column by the Washington Post's Terry Neal." Assuming Hugh Hewitt is not a Derridian, he's not really 'deconstructing' anything. No one seems to really care about this slip in usage, though, probably because, unlike 'begging the question,' 'deconstruction', as a concept, is not really useful in any way.)

One grammatical change that I, for one, welcome with open arms is the increasing acceptance of the use of 'they' as a third-person singular pronoun. The resistance to this seems to me to be based solely on an irrational clinging to a tradition that isn't even all that traditional.

This site, in addition to listing common 'errors' in usage, provides some examples of grammatical rules that ought to be phased out. One is the prohibition against the use of 'ain't':

This rule has more to do with ideas about class and social standing than it does with grammar. "Ain't" has traditionally been seen as a low-class thing to say; the prohibition against its use is based more on an idea that "people who are educated should never use such a low-class word" than it is on any serious rule of grammar or usage. William Shakespeare used the word "ain't;" that's good enough for me!

Of course, what goes unmentioned here is that almost all grammatical rules have everything to do with 'ideas about class and social standing,' as David Foster Wallace indicates in his treatment of the dialect of Standard White English.

Other rules we could live without:

"No split infinitives."

Of all the rules of English grammar which serve little purpose, the most obvious and least useful is the rule which says "thou shalt not split an infinitive." An infinitive is the "to" form of a verb; "to look," "to go," and so on. A "split infinitive" is a phrase in which some word appears between the "to" and the verb; "to boldly go," for example.

This particular rule was actually invented by one person, Bishop Roberth Lowth. In 1762, he published a book on English grammar, which has exerted an evil influence on English ever since. His reasoning for prohibiting a split infinitive was--get this--it's impossible to split an infinitive in Latin, so it shouldn't be done in English either.

I kid you not. That's the reason you've been told you must never, ever split an infinitive--because it's impossible to do in Latin, and in 1762 some yoyo decided that English really ought to look more like Latin, so anything you can't do in Latin you shouldn't do in English either.


"Never end a sentence with a preposition."

The rule that one must never end a sentence with a preposition is just as silly as the rule that one must never split an infinitive, and in fact the prohibition against ending sentences with a preposition often forces the speaker to use weird and awkward sentence structures. This point was most nobly illustrated by none other than Winston Churchill, who upon being told he couldn't end a sentence with a preposition, replied "[That] is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put." That says it all, really.


"Punctuation goes inside the quotation marks." (This one is a huge pet peeve of mine, because often it is blatantly illogical.)

This rule can create weird situations:

Did he really say "We will be there soon?"

The entire sentence is a question, but the part inside the quotation marks is not; writing according to the conventional rules of grammar is misleading, because you're counting on the reader to infer that the quotation was a statement, even though it ends in a question mark.

The rule that I'd most humbly like to propose is this: Punctuation belongs inside quotation marks if and only if that punctuation is actually part of the quopted literal; otherwise, it goes outside.


I'm sure there are others, but I can't think of any right now.

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