HOPEFULLY, everyone who reads this article will decide to stop worrying and leave their grammar alone. But probably they won't. There's too many self-appointed defenders of Good Usage out there among our readers, who are not about to let these kind of errors pass without correction. Already they're reaching for the typewriter and the copy of Edwin Newman's Strictly Speaking, preparing to send in one more letter full of sarcasm and despair. Just like they always do.
And there's too many copies of Strictly Speaking, and Theodore Bernstein's The Careful Writer. Predicting the end of English, and telling us how bad we talk has become a kind of minor industry. And there are so many publishers of despair that they have started to argue with one another. Bernstein decided in his latest book, Dos, Don'ts and Maybes of English Usage, to permit us to use the word "hopefully" just as I used it in my first sentence. And the Washington Star devoted a third of its editorial page to calling him a traitor to the cause.
But most of all, and responsible for them all - there are too many Wonderful English Teachers.
You remember your Wonderful English teacher - everybody had one - the one who hated bad language and loved grammar. And loved even more making fun of bad grammar. Like this sentence:
Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg Address while riding on a train on the back of an envelope.
"You see what that means?" says the Wonderful English Teacher. "The train is on the envelope!"
We do not, usually, see that withoohut one or two rereadings of the sentence. But we learn to. And we learn to alter that sentence so as not to confuse all those people who don't know that a train is bigger than an envelope. And we learn a great many more important solutions for which there are no problems.
We learn never to say "between you and I," because it is a hyper-correction. Though in fact "between you and I" is an idiom used by Shakespeare and common in the language as far back as the fifteenth century.
We learn that "fulsome" means disgusting, not abundant; though abundant was the original meaning of the word (1250 A.D.).
We learn that "enormity" means a great crime and is not the same as "enormousness" - though Thomas De Quincey used it that way, and so have any number of writers since.
But what chance had Shakespeare and De Quincey in a struggle with the Wonderful English Teacher? We weren't learning literature, we were learning to watch our language, think twice about what we said, worry about how we said it . . . A lot of snobbery and ignorance masquerading as All There Is To Know About English.
That's not hard to understand. At the same time, we were learning all there is to know about history: that the Civil War was fought to free the slaves; that the First World War was fought to make the world safe for Democracy; that George Washington could not tell a lie.
Only, the kids who liked history went onto study history, and in high school and college they found out that the Civil War was fought for economic reasons, the First World War was a struggle for colonial empires, George Washington padded his expense account.
Us kids who liked English did nothing but remember what we learned in the fourth grade - unless we learned the same things all over again from a new Wonderful English Teacher in hgih school or freshman composition. If we ever questioned any of the things we were taught, we looked them up in Fowler's Modern English Usage or Wilson Follett's Modern American Usage - books that are little more sensible, tolerant or realistic than the Wonderful English Teacher her (or more often him) self.
A little thought will convince anyone that they learned more grammar before they went to school than they ever did in school. The knowledge we already have by the time we get to kindergarten prevents us from saying:
The it boy the to told girl.
Because that's not English. We need no rule to tell us to write:
The boy the crocodile the man killed ate cursed god.
And it's a good thing we need no rule because that sentence, barely intelligible after two or three readings, conforms to all the rules we learned in school. We need no rule like this: "In the third person singular present of English regular verbs, (iz) is used after stems ending in a sibilant, (z) in other cases, except after breathed consonants, (s) after breathed consonants, except sibilants."
Though foreigners learning English do need that rule. It is taken from R.W. Zandvoort's Handbook of English Grammar, and simply pronouncing "gasses, "seethes," and "hits" will demonstrate that Zandvoort's rule is true of all native-born speakers of the majority dialect. If you're clever and nimble-tongued enough to violate that rule - to say "gassiss," "seethss," and "hidz" - you'll also discover how important it is: nobody will understand you. Yet the rule is, in print, hard for a native speaker to understand.
Here we come to a paradox: we all follow rules we never learned in school - rules we have never noticed, rules we could not state as clearly and succinctly as Zandvoort. And we all violate rules we learned in school - and a few minutes with a historical dictionary will show you that those school rules have been violated again and again, by great writers and poor writers, all through the history of English.
There are two possible conclusions:
Something is wrong with all native-born speakers of English. Alone of all people in the world we are unable to learn our own language.
Or else - something is wrong with the rules. And the books that print the rules. And the Wonderful English Teacher who believes them.
And in fact it is the books - and the teacher - that are wrong. I know this because I've spent a lot of time going through those popular handbooks on how to talk and think, and a lot more time looking up popular errors in the Oxford English Dictionary - a book that gives definitions historically, and examples of the use of the words through the centuries. Here are a few - a very few - of the sillier bits of advice I found.
In Modern American Usage, Wilson Follett complains about the new meaning given to the word "controversial." Controversial really means engaging in controversy, he says; it is now being used to mean merely open to question, disputed. Keep the old meaning he pleads - because "controversial in the new sense may well degenerate into a tag for discrediting everybody who is not colorless, to the detriment of both democracy and the individual."
Follett died before Modern American Usage could be completed, so the book was edited by Jacques Barzun - in collaboration with Carlos Baker, Frederick W. Dupee, Dudley Fitts, James D. Hart, Phyllis McGinley and Lionel Trilling.
How could all those highly educated people - who together have spent more years in school than any reader of this article has been alive - put their names on a book with such nonsense in it? In the firt place, it is impossible to believe that the use of any word could result in a detriment to any form of government. And in the second place the original meaning of "controversial" (way back in 1583) was disputed, open to controversy. The meaning that Follett thinks is original, engaging in controversy, never got into print until 1659 - almost a century later.
Edwin Newman, whose A Civil Tongue and Strictly Speaking are perhaps the most popular and worst books ever written about language, criticizes ordinary people for using "Y'know" and says there is "some reason to believe that in this country it began among poor blacks who, because of the disabilities imposed on them, often did not speak well . . . Y'know was a request for assurance that they had been understood."
It's impossible to tell where that fanciful story comes from, because Newman as usual gives no source for his information. According to the OED, you know first appeared in writing circa 1350. Chaucer used an equivalent in 1386. Addison03 used it in 1712. It found its way into the excruciatingly polite conversations of Jane Austen's characters in Northanger Abbey (1798).
"You know" is an old and useful phrase, as important in English as "n'est-ce pas?" is in French. It has never been used as a request for assurance that the speaker is understood. It is, as Randolph Quirk points out (The English Language and Images of Matter, Oxford 1972), an intimacy signal - a way of drawing the hearer closer to the speaker and making both feel more at ease. Drop out all the "y'knows" from your speech, says Quirk, and you start to strike other people as cool, abrupt, dogmatic, unsympathetic or even hostile. Which is why, perhaps, just those people who hate "y'know" - like Newman - are likely to hear it from people who talk to them. All they're trying to say is, "Show a little life, can't you?"
In his latest book, Dos, Don'ts and Maybes, Theodore Bernstein tells us we can say, "Kind of a muggy day," but never write it - because a refers to a single thing and a single thing can't be a kind or class.
Shakespeare felt otherwise: "I have the wit to think my master is a kind of a knave." (Two Gentlemen of Vetrona, III, i, 262). And the OED agrees with Shakespeare: kind of a is an expression meaning "an individual or thing that may be included in the class in question though not possessing its full characteristics."
Bernstein criticizes the use of the word critique - to critique a poem - because writers are trying to change the part of speech from a noun to a verb. They've been trying, it turns out, since 1751 - and as far as the rest of us are concerned they've succeeded.
Bernstein would like politicans to moved something or other - never make a motion.But the OED shows the phrase "make a motion" as far back as 1579.
Bernstein complains that homosexuals have recently taken over the adjective gay, and if the word is used that way much longer "it is going to be lost to the language in its true meaning."
In Slang and Its Analogs, a nineteenth century dictionary similar to the OED, gay is defined as "dissipated . . . given to the use of men." Chaucer called a loose woman "a gay girl" way back in the fourteenth century - and that didn't change the original meaning of the word. So there doesn't seem to be much reason to think that applying the word to men who are given to the use of men will by itself change the meaning of the word either.
What's curious about my copy of Slang and Its Analogs is that it is a new edition, published in 1970, with an introduction written by . . . Theodore Bernstein. What a shame the publishers didn't give him a copy - it would have put his mind at ease about the fate of "gay."
It seems pointless to go on. The little books that tell us how to talk are appallingly ignorant.
But maybe that misses the point. The books are valuable in their way. They at least report the prejudices of their day. It is true that some people in positions of power are offended by the idiom "between you and I." ("Horrors," said W.H. Auden in the Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage; "Equivalent to 'give it to I,'" said Anthony Burgess - both of whom ought to have known better). There is probably a need for books that help people recognize those prejudices - like there is for books that help people recognize the equally important prejudices against eating soup with a dessert spoon or wearing brown shoes with a blue suit.
But what we have a right to expect of these books is that they be accurate, historically correct - and humane. No one reading Emily Post would come away with the idea that they should laugh at people who made errors in etiquette. Just the opposite in fact. So there is no reason why books of language etiquette should encourage people to feel superior to traditional ways of speaking, to deliberately pretend to misunderstand a person who violates some new fad taboo. The more you learn about language, the more you should be interested in language and in the tremendous variety of expression that English affords. Our language is like a great sea, and it is silly to listen to people who want to reduce it to a little logical puddle.
Take for example that sentence, "The boy the crocodile the man shot ate cursed god." We don't say things like that, because there is a limit to the number of subordinate clauses speakers of English can tolerate.
But in the past few years English has been changing, and we now have a whole new tolerance for a long string of words that do not make up a clause - in fact, that have no grammatical connection at all. Bernstein is dimly aware of these word chains, and makes fun of them:
"Ground-Floor Cleaner and Mahogany Furniture Duster Blanche Krankheit."
But that's a comparatively short chain. Try this:
"The fifth annual Jerry Lewis All-Star Muscular Dystrophy TV Marathon was longer and more boring than the fourth."
People who can't understand that short sentence about the man shooting the crocodile who ate the boy who cursed god can understand that long sentence the first time they hear it. Read both to a friend and you'll see. Though we never learned anything at all about word chains in school. Though most grammar books never mention them at all.
Word chains are an example of how we change speech in our ordinary talk - because we are constantly inventing new ways of using language - have invented them, without even noticing.
Ordinary talk, especially American talk, is inventive - and lively, pithy, expressive, a delight to listen to - because, luckily, we don't have to go to school to learn how to talk. Luckily - as somebody once pointed out - we don't have to go to school to learn how to walk either.
Or we'd be a nation of cripples.
We do go to school to learn how to write. And thanks mostly to the Wonderful English Teacher, most Americans write like cripples. So they go to books like Strictly Speaking or Dos, Don'ts and Maybes to straighten out their prose - and come away with advice about as useful and sensible as shortening a short leg.
"Will America be the death of English?" wrote Edwin Newman in Strictly Speaking. " "My well-thoughtout mature judgment is that it will."
But I know different. English is unkillable - if it could be killed, people like Newman and Bernstein and the Wonderful English Teacher would have killed it long ago.