For about as long as I can remember, I’ve had a fascination with the
mechanisms of the English language. In junior high school, not only did I
without complaint, but I even sought out sentences that challenged the adequacy
of those arcane grammatical representations taught in English
I loved linguistic rules. They appealed to my sense
of order and gave me that special feeling of power that comes from knowing what
others often don’t. I treasure each obscure rule that I can cite to justify changes I
want to make to other people’s writing.
Neither high school nor college taught me many new rules. Teachers
were much more interested in topics like symbolism in literature, a phenomenon about whose very existence I harbored serious doubts.2
In graduate school, I studied formal grammars, and
I came to realize that our forebears created language, not grammar.
The rules, of which I was so fond, are mechanisms designed to describe, rather
the prescribe the language. The mechanisms tend to be defective in many subtle
ways. This is not to say that rules are useless, but good use of the language is
harder than the rules suggest. Moreover, English (and particularly American
English) is something of a moving target. Not until I read
H. L. Menken’s The American Language, did I realize that many
conventions I assumed were ancient are, in fact, much newer.
My attitude toward grammatical rules has mellowed over the years, resulting
largely from my technical editing work at the
Software Engineering Institute. My concerns have become less about
“correctness” and more about clarity. Good writing communicates the desired
message. Good rules (putting a comma after an introductory phrase, for
instance) facilitate effective communication, and bad rules (the
“shall”/“will” distinction, say) are just so much baggage. And, of course,
language is more than syntax. Selecting the right word is necessary for
Languages in regular use are constantly evolving. New terms and conventions
are invented to meet the needs of changing society and technology. The
utility, precision, and aesthetics of new words or constructions are variable,
however. For example, “Ms.” serves a useful function and is compatible with
related forms, though it appears to be an abbreviation but isn’t. Words like “amirite”
or “herstory,” on the other hand, seem both unnecessary and ugly. A word like
“gay” for homosexual is useful for its conciseness, but the usage compromises
other uses of the word. “With gay abandon” just doesn’t have the same sense it
used to. Over time, neologisms tend to get sorted out—the “best” of them do not
always triumph, but we get used whatever does win out. Following the evolution
of language is seldom boring.
In this section of my Web site—I may be the last holdout who isn’t using
“website”—I offer my
thoughts about American English I hope you will find amusing.
diagramming—try even understanding—the first sentence of “The Star Spangled Banner.”
There is, of course, some question about where the first sentence ends. The
question mark after the second line—which appears to be original—requires a
strange interpretation of the next two lines. It should, I think, be replaced by
a comma, which makes sense, but also creates the grammatical monstrosity I
challenge you to diagram. I suspect Francis Scott Key recognized the problem but
lacked the audaciousness to use a comma.
2One of my high school
English teachers once asked the class to consider what symbolism might be
present in the spelling of a character’s name in Moby Dick, the Manxman.
What, she asked, could be the significance of “man cross man”? What indeed!
— LED, 5/25/2008, rev. 1/26/2023