Saturday, May 20, 2006

The Province of the Grammarian

I received a very old book in the mail today: The Elements of Grammar; So Arranged as to Combine the Analytical and Synthetical Methods: With an Introduction for Beginners, and Various Exercises, Oral and Written, for the Formation, Analysis, Transformation, Classification, and Correction of Sentences. by Samuel S. Greene, A.M. Philadelphia: H. Cowperthwaite & Co., 1855. The Preface points out that the introductory lessons are "intended to be wholly oral," and are aimed at younger learners. The beginning of the second part - "English Grammar" - has this to say:
Grammar is not a code of laws made for the language, but rather derived from the language in its present state. It is the province of the grammarian to interpret and classify the analogies and usage of the language so as to present them in a condensed and systematic view. Over the laws of the language he has no control, or rather, he has the same kind of control that the naturalist has over the laws of the physical world, and no other. He does not make the rules of grammar; he only exhibits what already exists. That the "verb agrees with its nominitive in number and person," is not an authoritative edict from the grammarian. It existed as a law of language long before he discovered and published it....

What I find most interesting is the phrase "the language in its present state." If a grammarian is merely an interpreter of rules as they exist, what happens when there is a change in the language? Who gets to say that the change has become a rule? How long does something in common usage have to be "wrong" before it is considered "right?" When does something stop sounding (or looking) ignorant before it's considered okay because everyone does it? I don't know the answers to these questions, although I suspect it has something to do with the people who care dying off before educating the younger generations.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

A Ren Faire Speak How-To

I love archaic stuff like this:
Will and shall change to wilt and shalt when thou is the subject, but remain unchanged for other subjects.

The remaining auxiliaries, also, change only when thou is the subject. But thou is not used in ordinary discourse. Except in solemn or poetical style, we use you, whether addressing one person or more; these auxiliaries, therefore are seldom changed.

The forms of the remaining auxiliaries required with thou, in solemn or poetical style, end in st: --
MUST - thou must (no change).
HAD - thou hadst.
CAN - thou canst.
MAY - thou mayst (mayest).
MIGHT - thou mightst (mightest).
COULD - thou couldst (couldest).
WOULD - thou wouldst (wouldest).
SHOULD - thou shouldst (shouldest).

...Will and shall may not be used at pleasure, the one for the other. To express simply what is about to take place, shall is used with I and we; will is used with all other subjects.

...Will used with I or we, and shall with other subjects imply determination as well as futurity.
(Lesson L(50) from Illustrated Lessons in Our Language by G.P Quackenbos, 1882. Available on CD at Lady's Maid Books).

On the topic of will and shall, The Common School Question Book (by Asa Craig, 1878) has this to say about them:
116. When is it proper to use shall and should?

Answer: When required to express a duty, command, determination, resolve; and in future propositions when the subject is of the first person and no reference is made to the will of the subject.

117. When is it proper to use will and would?

Answer: When the expression is of willingness, inclination, or in future, propositions when the subject is of the second or third person, and no compulsion required.
So, there is a difference between shall and will. It's just that very few of us know it anymore.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Not your everyday update

I slipped. I overlooked this wonderful entry on the "every day/everyday" error from 1999's Sleeping Dogs Don't Lay: Practical Advice for the Grammatically Challenged, by Richard Lederer and Richard Dowis:

"I will always speak my mind. Every day," says a man in a Toyota TV commercial. The screen turns black, and the slogan materializes: TOYOTA/EVERYDAY.

The Toyota people goofed. Every day styled as two words, is an adverb that means just what it says, as in "Every day in every way we get better and better." Everyday, squished together as one word, is an adjective meaning "commonplace, ordinary," as in, "an everyday occurrence." Did the Toyota hucksters really want to say that their products are commonplace and ordinary? We don't think so.

When you mean "all days," write every day, not everyday.

(Cross-posted to The Anger of Compassion)

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.