To err is human…

50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice –

I admit that, once, as the editor of two different publications, I would sanctimoniously distribute copies of The Elements of Style to writers whom I believed just didn’t quite get it.

How? I don’t remember. More than likely they were making some mistakes most educated people could agree on, but I am willing to submit that a few of them simply weren’t bowing down to some of my/Strunk’s/White’s writing hobby horses.

As the author of the above article establishes admirably, Strunk and White didn’t know what they were talking about. Not even kind of. Moreover, they broke most of their own rules on any number of occasions.

Worse, though, is really that their rules are not based in reality. The teaching of English has so little to do with the actual English language that’s a wonder that there are writers who can overcome their own graphophobia and produce interesting literature. Teachers of English have all learned a schizophrenic system of pseudo-rules that they gleaned from the often inconsistent, railing standards of their own teachers, most of whom have no more than a knowledge that a field called linguistics exists.

The wisest of prescriptivists have surmised correctly that if the writing (and speaking) of English is not cluttered up with senseless rules, based at best on analogy to languages that are not even related to English, that their jobs would disappear. If you can’t gesticulate wildly and tell people that you can’t split infinitives because Latin never split infinitives, what are you good for?

Of course, we don’t bother telling children (or educating them in Latin) that Latin infinitives do not split because they consisted of only one word. True, you can’t split one word. What does that have to do with English, whose infinitives are not one, but two words?

I remember once that a friend shared with me the following situation: he was in an English class (wherein the students happened to be reading Shakespeare, though I don’t remember what precisely) and the teacher queried who was to read next. My friend responded: “It is I.” The class erupted into laughter, pointing out that my friend, the teacher’s pet, couldn’t even point out it was his turn gramatically. The teacher then went on a five minute rant about how my friend was indeed correct in his phraseology, and that, since no action was committed on his person, there was no grammatical option other than his.

This is patently untrue, and the other students’ laughter makes this clear. The vast preponderance of English-speakers would have said in that situation: “It’s me.” It’s called the oblique, and we got it from French (“c’est moi”, never “c’est je”). Languages which have no case system come up against such challenges, but, somehow, most speakers learn and intuit what to do in potentially confusing situations like this. Simply put, if it doesn’t hamper communication and everyone agrees on the form, you can’t and, I posit, shouldn’t, try to change it with rules based on false analogy.

Lastly, a word or two for the passive voice. Clearly, Strunk and White didn’t even know what it was. Here’s some news you may have missed out on while English teachers were throwing red pens like darts at you: English forms a truly vast number of adjectives in the same way it does past passive participles. This does not make those adjectives into past passive participles – they just look like them.

Moreover, if every action were to have an agent, there would be no questions left unanswered, and no variability at all in English prose. Use the passive if it feels right, that is, if your prose would otherwise be cluttered without it. Just because a scary man with a tight face and a publisher waves his finger in your face and castigates you, it doesn’t mean you’re wrong.


~ by thepostpasseist on April 14, 2009.

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