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Even more comments on language can be read in 
Lionel Deimel’s
Web Log
. For a listing of all of them, click here.

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. (Try 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 genuine—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.)  

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 don’t. I treasure each obscure rule that I can cite to justify changes I want to make to other people's writing.

Unfortunately, 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. (One 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 said, could be the significance of “man cross man?” What indeed!)Pile 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 quite recently, when I read H. L. Menken’s The American Language, did I realize that many conventions I assumed were ancient are, in fact, much newer.

The truth is that my personality favors rules and order, whatever their objective utility. I have mellowed over the years, however, largely as the result of the technical editing I did at the Software Engineering Institute. My concern has become less one of “correctness” than of utility. 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.

The utility argument can be a slippery one, of course. The controversy over the teaching of Ebonics is very much tied up with the “usefulness” of black dialect. Not only do we need to communicate effectively with one another, however, but we need also to preserve our capacity to do so. “Dumbing down” the language, insofar as it makes it more difficult to express particular ideas as distinct from other ones, is a bad thing. For example, the use of “gay” as a (somewhat ambiguous) synonym of “homosexual” has made other uses of “gay" problematic. “With gay abandon” takes on a different meaning than formerly. (I apologize for any political incorrectness here, but the examples cited are likely to seem more interesting and “relevant”—does anyone still use the word this way?—than examples involving comma faults.)

All this is by way of introduction to other thoughts about American English I hope you will find amusing.

— LED, 5/25/2008

 

My posts on language can be found below. But first, I offer some language tools and links to sites likely to be of interest (and amusement) to readers fascinated by language.
 
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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.
 


 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.

 
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