Monday, May 15, 2006

Dean Alford's Blunders

It seems there is no consensus and has never been any consensus on English usage. We may consider something "correct" because that was what we were taught, but there is always someone somewhere who will argue that current usage supercedes that which is traditionally considered correct because English is an evolving language.

Hmph. That makes it very difficult for anyone who wants to know how to say something without sounding ignorant. What bothers me is this idea of "consensus." Who is deciding this? And does this mean that the use of the Green Grocer's apostrophe should be conisdered correct because it has been around so long? (see my post Arguments on the Apostrophe "s".)

Mistake #389 in 1000 Mistakes Corrected and Peculiarities of Language Noted, by Prof. W.H.Larrabee and Prof. H. A. Buttz (New York: N. Tibbals & Sons, 1873) is titled "Dean Alford's Blunders." Dean Henry Alford wrote A Plea for the Queen's English in 1864. He was roundly criticized for what people considered errors found within, particularly by George Washington Moon, an American, who wrote The Dean's English in response. It seems this is a point where American English and British English came head-to-head for a time, though the other combatants in the war attacked whomever they thought wrong, regardless of what side of the Atlantic they were on (this site has a very brief synopsis of this controversy). Here is what Prof. Larrabee has to say:
389. Dean Alford's blunders. -- The late Dean Alford of Canterbury, wrote a number of essays which he made into a book and called "A Plea for the Queen's English," for the purpose of correcting errors in speech and writing. According to some of those who criticized his work, he committed almost as many errors as he corrected. He several times employed the adjective where he should have used the adverb. In one place he said "that is a decided weak point in his character," instead of speaking of a "decidedly weak point." In another place he expressed an excellent rule for the selection of words in conversation, in the following awkward phraseology: "If with your inferiors, speak no coarser than usual; if with your superiors, no finer." He should have said: "if with your inferiors, speak no more coarsely than usual; if with your superiors, no more finely." The rule is commended to all, but the Dean's language is not commended. Carelessness is no better excuse for such blunders than ignorance.

475. Treat. -- Moon, in "the Dean's English," objects to such phrases as "An exception I cannot well treat," saying it should be treat of. The distinction in the use of treat with the preposition and without it is well illustrated in the sentence, "A matter treated of in my former paper was treated by you with indifference." This view seems to be just.
This argument about "treat" seems a bit awkward since we don't see it used much anymore. I cannot be sure if Moon was responding to a specific rule discussed by Dean Alford or not, but it seems likely. Whatever the case, it shows that such arguments will always be around.


Blogger aparker54 said...

Note the misspelling of "supersede." Safire did that, too.

10:29 AM  
Blogger Alexandra said...

Well, at least I'm in good company.

12:59 PM  

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