Degenerates welcome

April 20, 2012|By John E. McIntyre | The Baltimore Sun

At, Mary Elizabeth Williams is not happy with the Associated Press Stylebook's abandonment of the nonsensical prohibition of hopefully as a sentence adverb, and collaterally not happy with me for my part in prodding the editors toward that decision.

Unfortunately, whatever merit her argument might have had was vitiated by her resort to the Hoary Shibboleths to bolster her authority.

"Yet I’m lax about ending sentences with a preposition," she said, and well she might be, since we have long since abandoned the eighteenth century's English-must-be-like-Latin approach to usage. "And I start half my sentences with conjunctions." So did the translators of the Authorized Version: "And God said, Let there be light; and there was light."

There's more: "Language is meant to be subverted. (Note bold use of passive voice!" Neither bold, nor passive, I think. We could argue whether a past participle following a form of to be is a true passive or merely serving the same function as an adjective in a copular construction, as in the sentence "Ms. Williams's argument is impaired." (Dr. Pullum, call your service.) In any case, there is nothing inherently wrong with the passive voice, and it is often preferable.

Ms. Williams does not display the barest knowledge of standard reference works on usage, such as Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage or Bryan Garner's Modern American Usage, or of the work of the linguists at Language Log. Her statements about usage are mere unexamined assertions.

But her bankrupt prescriptivism is not what struck me most about her article. She writes of her "simple grief for grammar in general and its degradation in classrooms and newsrooms." There's an underlying assumption, found frequently in hard-shell prescriptivist literature, that the language is degenerating before our eyes, degraded by the young and the people in occupations for which we have little or no respect (journalism, advertising, marketing, television, you name it). 

There is always that time in the past when everything was all right, when people respected their betters and teachers knew The Rules and pounded them into those tiny skulls. But the now is always a degenerate time when all the old standards are eroded and English is decaying into jibber-jabber.

What English? Something sure as hell happened to Anglo-Saxon. Shakespeare and that crowd coined all those new words and slipped them into Tudor English. The seventeenth century loved immense periodic sentences. We can hold Dryden accountable for introducing the stranded-preposition superstition. Nineteenth-century writers loved the semicolon so widely despised in our time. And all through the ages speakers and writers of English have wantonly verbed nouns and nouned verbs and changed the meanings of perfectly good words. Tell me, Ms. Williams, at what point in this continuum the degeneration set in.

Ms. Williams does write, "Language keeps evolving, and that’s fine and natural." Yes, she knows that language evolves. She just doesn't like to see it happen. 

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