Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Proper English? I Don’t Think So

Noah Webster wrote a dictionary published in 1826 incorporating the words Americans used. Notice I wrote “Americans” not “English speaking people.” During the Revolutionary War, he felt strongly that the geographical area of what soon became the United Sates of America make a total break from England. No more aristocratic rule, no taxation without representation, no ruling from afar, no more class system and no more aristocratically separating speech. In working toward this goal, Webster expounded every chance he had that there should be a new country with its own rules and its own language. 

Webster went about changing British language to American language. He heard new words being used like moccasin, skunk, tipi and raccoon. He saw that many words in British English did not make sense so why spell them that way? Gaol was pronounced ja-il so why not spell it similarly? We say theater but it was spelled theatre, center but spelled it centre and judgment not judgement. Besides wanting to change language to be more logical, he wanted to unify a group of states that spoke different dialects and native languages brought from Europe that made it hard to understand one another. Standardization of language and writing brought unification that was needed to build a united country after the Revolutionary War.

What happened to our language in 239 years? English speakers today are governed by Strunk and White and other rulers of grammar and punctuation. They and grammarian gurus dictated what
proper English was well into the 20th century. All other uses of the language are wrong, wrong, wrong I say to you! But, the Internet has changed what English is and how it is used. Yes, we have to have some cohesive standards so we can understand other English speakers and writers but why do we say we cannot end a sentence with a proposition or split an infinitive? The (ironic) definition of a preposition is "A word you mustn't end a sentence with". Winston Churchill once used a preposition at the end of a sentence and was called to task for it. “Do you know who you are dealing with?” As the story goes, Churchill replied, "That's the sort of pedantry up with which I will not put."

Why are we so worried about the correctness of our writing and speaking when so many rules no longer make sense? It now sounds awkward to say “Firstly, I want to…” versus “First I want to…, second ….” Either way is correct in today’s American language but to grammaticians “Firstly” is formal usage.  Creeping into common use is “they” as a single pronoun. “Somebody left their umbrella on the table.” To some “She will blame you and I” sounds correct so why not use it? 

A rule written in the 1800’s states writers are supposed to learn not to split infinitives. Infinitives are “to” followed by a verb. “To diligently follow “ or “To graphically illustrate his point” are examples of split infinitives. “To boldly go where no man has gone before” sounds perfectly normal. “She urged me to casually walk up and to quietly introduce myself ” sounds normal. It sets in the reader’s mind the picture more quickly than “She urged me to walk up casually and introduce myself quietly.” The newest Merriam-Webster dictionary, a many times updated version of Noah Webster’s first dictionary, lists hundreds of words and phrases that do not meet the stuffy rules of a former era of grammar but instead reflect how Americans speak, write and spell today.

If it is general use, then that is what the preferred language is. Pedantic rules insistently enforced are becoming old fashioned. In society today, people want quick, fast, immediate. The emphasis is on being understood rather than being grammatically correct. Of course, in some writing such as formal, literary, scientific papers and for your dissertation, following the rules is wise. In a lot of other venues, to go boldly where no man has gone sounds good and it is accepted by your reader.

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