Do grammar mistakes cause you anxiety? Anger? Despair? Smug superiority? Fear? Why do we have these emotions when we talk about commas and pronouns? Language rules are about a lot more than language, as Robert Lane Greene's new book about language and the politics of identity reveals.
You Are What You Speak, from journalist Robert Lane Greene, is an excellent examination of where our ideas about language come from. The book is not so much about the rules themselves as about how they came about and how they are imposed--or self-imposed. Greene's first few pages includes a wonderful discussion of two of my favorite non-rules and how they got into our head: "Don't end a sentence with a preposition" and "Never split an infinitive."
My background in Latin and classics makes me particularly sensitive to the idiocy of these rules' application to English. They popped up in England when stylists and grammarians with thorough grounding in Latin composition started extrapolating their knowledge and hammering at ye olde English with the tools that built Cicero's orations and the like. And those tools may have built the Aeneid, but they warped decades of "rule-abiding" English prose.
An excerpt from Greene:
- "Why is it 'wrong' to end a sentence with a preposition? ... Who, upon seeing a
cake in the office break room, says, 'For whom is this cake?' instead of 'Who's the cake for?' Where did this rule come from?
"The answer will surprise even most English teachers: John Dryden, the seventeenth-century poet less well known as an early, influential stickler. In a 1672 essay, he criticized his literary predecessor Ben Jonson for writing 'The bodies that these souls were frightened from.' Why the prepositional bee in Dryden's syntactical bonnet? This pseudo-rule probably springs from the same source many others do: the classical languages. Dryden said he liked to compose in Latin and translate into English, as he valued the precision and clarity he believed Latin required of writers. The preposition-final construction is impossible in Latin. Hence: it is impossible in English. Confused by his logic? Linguists remain so to this day. But once Dryden proclaimed the rule, it made its way into the first generation of English usage books roughly a century later and thence into the minds of two hundred years of English teachers and copy editors.
"The rule has no basis in clarity ('Who's that cake for?' is perfectly clear); history (it was made up from whole cloth); literary tradition (Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Samuel Johnson, Lord Byron, Henry Adams, Lewis Carroll, James Joyce, and dozens of other great writers have violated it); or purity (it isn't native to English but probably stolen from Latin; clause-final prepositions exist in English's cousin languages such as Danish and Icelandic). Many people know that the Dryden rule is nonsense. From the great usage-book writer Henry Fowler in the early twentieth century, usage experts began to caution readers io ignore it. The New York Times flouts it. The 'rule' should be put to death, but it may never be. Even those who know it is ridiculous observe it for fear of annoying others."
I do not observe this rule, not so much because I fear annoying the ghost of Winston Churchill as because I agree, wholeheartedly, with Churchill's most excellent one-line demolishment of it:
"That is something up with which I will not put."
Greene goes on to discuss how our opinions and beliefs about good and bad language, good and bad grammar, good and bad words, and the like are a way of defining ourselves, our nations, our communities, and our social and economic class.
Shame over bad grammar is all too often shame over a "lesser" education or no education. It's got a lot to do with Nancy Mitford's "U" and "non-U" distinctions about British usage, and in fact, beliefs about language are by no means limited to English. One of the great assets of Greene's work is how he steps out into the multilingual world and looks at language rules and judgments in nations such as Turkey, France, and India.
What's your favorite "non-rule" about English grammar?
Ellen Scordato has 25 years' book publishing experience as an editor, copy editor, proofreader, and managing editor. She's now a partner in The Stonesong Press, a nonfiction book producer and agency. In addition to her work at Stonesong, Ellen has taught grammar, punctuation, and style at the New School for more than 12 years in the English Language Studies department and taught English as a Second Language at Cabrini Immigrant Services.