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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 diagram sentences without complaint, but I even sought out sentences that challenged the adequacy of those arcane grammatical representations taught in English class.1  

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.2Pile of letters

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 achieving clarity.

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.

1Try 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


Below are interesting language-related external links.

Lovers of words will likely enjoy John Higgins’ A Language Museum of Curious & Interesting Uses of the English Language.

Perhaps even more fascinating is Michael Quinion’s very British World Wide Words.

A great source of information on contemporary words and phrases is Evan Morris’s The Word Detective.

The Online Etymological Dictionary is a good source of information about where our words have come from.

Eric Wegweiser’s Gallery of the Absurd is not strictly about language, although language plays a part in many items in his gallery. The site is very visual and a lot of fun.

Many English words first appeared in print in the works of William Shakespeare. A number of pages on the Web discuss this. One of them is An Online Guide to Shakespeare the Neologist.

12 Old Words that Survived by Getting Fossilized in Idioms is an amusing list of words that most people know only from common phrases.

And a handy list of names for groups of animals

Below is a list of my own essays on language in this section of the Web site. A number of posts on language can also be found on my blog. The Table of Contents for the blog shows language posts in green, which makes them easy to find.

Desk caddyYour Mileage May Vary — Does this phrase really say what it is supposed to mean?

Momentarily — a word that should be used with greater care

E-mails — proper words for modern technology

Every Being for Itself — linguistic problems of political correctness

What If They Gave a Day, and Nobody Came? —the goofiness of imprecise language

Silent Ls — A surprising number of English words contains Ls that are not sounded.

Video — more linguistic problems resulting from changing technology

Commas — Why are some people so stingy in their use of commas?

Going to Hospital — Why don’t Americans say what the British say?

Postseason — What happens after 162 regular baseball games?

Odd Adjectives — Some adjectives look like adverbs.

Six Language Quibbles — various usages that are problematic

Hyphens — Like commas, hyphens can prevent misreading.


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