Really, so many are more interesting than I am

September 26, 2014|By John E. McIntyre | The Baltimore Sun

Let me direct you.

Item: The dear old subjunctive, once so vigorous in Anglo-Saxon, has experienced a long wasting disease in English. 

At The Economist's ProsperoRobert Lane Greene points out that the subjunctive (a) can get misused because it is so similar to the indicative and (b) tends to be shunned because it sounds so formal and stuffy. 

He concludes: "Pity the poor subjunctive, hanging out with whom as dowdy old contestants on the reality show of English grammar, both wondering which will be voted off by English-speakers first. Once, English was a heavily inflected language like German or Russian. Gradually, speakers got rid of verb endings like ­–est and –eth, ditched the pronouns thou and ye, and the case-endings on all English nouns except the pronouns. The subjunctive may not survive the coming centuries. That might be a shame, but speakers will do what they will do. Or as the subjunctive might say for itself, with a resigned sigh: so be it."

Item: The subjunctive may be tricky for current writers, but English orthography is treacherous. Everyone knows that, of course, and many know that all the plans to rationalize and simplify English's maddeningly inconsistent spellings have come to grief. 

At Lingua Franca, Anne Curzan describes a related hazard, the trickiness of pronunciation

This, my fellow Wordvilleans, surely strikes a chord, for we all developed a much broader reading vocabulary than our speaking vocabulary from early days. And thus, like Professor Curzan, we can find ourselves in public about to utter a word we know from reading whose pronunciation we will have to guess at, with an attendant anxiety about embarrassing ourselves.

(I remember that as a child I thought for a long time that misled was pronounced to sound like "missile," though I don't recollect when I stumbled upon the correct pronunciation.)

And of course, whatever dictionary we consult may be of little help, because it will list variations in pronunciation, leading us to wonder which one is a regionalism, which one is the prestige pronunciation, which one will betray our lack of education and sophistication. 

Professor Curzan does a bold thing: She stands before a hundred students and admits that she does not know how to pronounce a word (click on the link to see which one) and solicits their views. The outcome is more interesting than if she had simply guessed and moved on.

One of the first things I do in my editing classes is to get the entire group to say, out loud and several times over, "I don't know." Saying in public that you are not omniscient and infallible can be liberating. 

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