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Opening Arguments

Ain't no right way

Those rotten kids and all that texting, I tell you. With the way they abbreviate and make up acronyms and leave grammar behind, they are just ruinin' the English language, ruinin' it, I tell you.

But hold on there, not so fast:

It is well past time to consign grammar pedantry to the history books.

As children, we all have the instinct to acquire a set of rules and to apply them. Any toddler is already a grammatical genius. Without conscious effort, we combine words into sentences according to a particular structure, with subjects, objects, verbs, adjectives and so on. We know that a certain practice is a rule of grammar because it’s how we see and hear people use the language.

That’s how scholarly linguists work. Instead of having some rule book of what is “correct” usage, they examine the evidence of how native and fluent nonnative speakers do in fact use the language. Whatever is in general use in a language (not any use, but general use) is for that reason grammatically correct.

The grammatical rules invoked by pedants aren’t real rules of grammar at all. They are, at best, just stylistic conventions: An example would be the use of a double negative (I can’t get no satisfaction). It makes complete grammatical sense, as an intensifier. It’s just a convention that we don’t use double negatives of that form in Standard English.

 Some other pedantic stipulations are destructive pieces of folklore, like the belief that it is wrong to split an infinitive or to end a sentence with a preposition. We should be entirely relaxed about that sort of choice. Why worry, as some pedants do, about whether to write “firstly” or “first” when you begin a list of points? Either is correct.

The range of legitimate variation is wider than you would imagine. Yes, you may use “hopefully” as an adverb modifying an entire sentence; and you may use “they” as a singular generic pronoun; and you may say “between you and I.” The pedants’ prohibitions on constructions like these are not supported by the evidence of general usage.

Pedantry is poor manners, certainly, but also poor scholarship. If someone tells you that you “can’t” write something, ask them why not. Rarely will they have an answer that makes grammatical sense; it is probably just a superstition that they have carried around with them for years.

It pains me a little to say he's right, since I make my living with "proper" language and delight in knowing obscure things most people aren't aware of (like, for instance, the fact that strictly speaking, "hiterhto" means "until now" and if you want to be precise in the past tense, the word for "until then:" is "thitherto").

But, alas, he is right, and those of us inclined to pedantry (guilty) should chill once in a while. Language is a living, growing thing; however it is currently being used is the "right" way. Trying to rein it in with stuffy rules and regulations is a lost cause. It's amazing how many people don't get what a dictionary is -- not a rule book for the proper use of words, but an account of how they are currently and commonly used.

I think he goes just a tad too far, though. There is a reason to try to stick to "the rules," even as we accept that they come from common usage and not from edicts on high. The closer we all stick to the same language, the better chance we will understand each other. We just shouldn't be snobs about it when someone strays from the path occasionally. I struggle with that, I really do.