Grammatically speaking: I

grammar.jpgI’m managing editor of a magazine. In the real world, that would mean I’d sit in a corner office and watch my underlings edit copy. In the world of the U.S. government (and especially as a contractor), I sit in a cubicle—okay, it’s decent-sized and has two windows—have no underlings, and do most of the copy editing myself. As I blue-pencil manuscripts, I try not to be a hidebound prescriptive grammarian (someone who says how we should talk versus someone who describes how we do talk) because I am increasingly irritated by people who decree that the way the English language was 30 or 40 or 50 years ago (or whenever they were growing up) is how it has been and ever shalt be, world without end, Amen.

Language is a living and evolving thing. It’s not frozen in time, though every era spawns people who think it is. What we say today, perfectly correctly, was possibly scorned as ignorant beyond measure in the past; and what Mrs. Grammar-Oracle decreed when we were in first grade may well be something artifically imposed at some point on the language, of which the likes of Chaucer and Shakespeare (shame on them) were ignorant because it postdated them.

For example, Mrs. G-O said not to split infinitives and not to end sentences with prepositions. Greater writers than you or I (see above) did both all the way up to the 18th century, at which point it was determined that if you wanted to appear educated, you modeled English on Latin. So various Latin rules were imposed upon the English language.

You can’t split an infinitive in Latin: “to go” is any number of things depending on whether you want to go forth (exire), to (adire), over (transire), up (subire), around (circumire), in, out, away, off—you get the picture. But however you want to go, there’s no way to put the adverb between the “to” and the “go” because it’s all one word. So forget “to boldly go.”

And since Latin is a case-marked language, nouns have different endings, depending on whether you want of say “of,” “to”, “for,” “from,” or “by” the noun of your choice and whether said noun is singular or plural. Sometimes there needs to be a preposition in front of the noun but not always. The Latin language is constructed so that you can’t say “the house I came from,” but you certainly can say it in English and everyone did until the 18th century twits told them not to. Winston Churchill reputedly said something along the lines of its being nonsense “up with which I will not put.” He had a point. Do you have a problem with “I’ll turn the light off” as opposed to “I’ll turn off the light”? Then stop fussing about prepositions at the end of sentences and get a life.

I still have unshakeable prejudices, however. I recognize that “I was laying down” is so widespread that, even though currently nonstandard (as we politely say for what we used to call bad grammar), it’s well on the way to becoming standard English. But I don’t like it, and I will probably continue to say “I was lying down” and eventually be considered incorrect or pedantic in the new grammatical order, just as I am sure many people are shocked by my “error” when I say “Put it in a memo to Mr. Big and me.” I can’t resign myself to “… to Mr. Big and I” because it’s just plain illogical. If we dispense with Mr. Big, can we put whatever it is in a memo and send it to I? I’m fighting a losing battle though. I work with a bunch of professional editors, almost all of whom wouldn’t feel any reason to apply the blue pencil to “Mr. Big and I.” I find that very scary. Obviously my desire not to be a prescriptive grammarian goes only so far.

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4 Responses to Grammatically speaking: I

  1. Elisabeth says:

    Aye, Aye. I am all with you on this. Language evolves, thus it is necessary to be a casuistic prescriptive grammarian. As it is for you, there are certain ungrammatical things that I cannot take, but I am pretty flexible otherwise.

  2. Alison says:

    You and I have many of the same peeves about language and grammar: the preposition and split infinitive nonsense, lay/lie, and “and I,” when it really ought to be “and me.”

    One other thing that really bothers me is the use of “there’s” even when the subject is plural. It hurts my ears to hear “There’s three dogs over there.” Gah! I know that language evolves (and I also know that il y a in French and hay in Spanish are used for both singular and plural subjects), but it still grates.

  3. Dan says:

    In addition to being grammatically forgiving & flexible, you possess a number of vital attributes that make you a wonderful editor: a sense of humor, a sense of adventure, a sense of irreverence towards the status quo, courage, etc…

    Them is things for which Q & me is most thankful for.

  4. […] Strictly speaking, this hasn’t anything to do with grammar, the thread I started yesterday—any more than the image has to do with this post (unless you cut me a break and consider it to symbolize lobbing tomatoes)—but it (the post, that is) addresses some of my linguistic likes and dislikes. This is my blog and I can air whatever prejudices I like. So there. […]

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