Language Evolves and Grammar Lurches Along:
On Keeping a Toehold on Stampeding Style
On Keeping a Toehold on Stampeding Style
Well, enough of excuses and allusions. My discussion is in four parts. In the first I will detail ten of the commonest errors one encounters in everyday speech and writing. It is in the form of a quiz. If you get all or most correct, you might be satisfied to go your way in peace. Or, even if you don’t, you could simply resolve not to do it again, and still go your way in peace. If you endure to the second part, I will present the rationale for the correct choices in common sense terms. In the third part I will say a bit about the parts of language, and how they require the currently-reigning rules. (Heaven knows I’m no expert at it, but I do have the basics, and we’ll muddle through.) Finally, in the fourth part I will reverse course and propose that, if you hang around long enough, many of the things I criticize (following Strunk and White) will be common practice. Off we go, then.
Which statement in each of the following pairs is correct? (Answers below)
1a “Mom came to town this morning, and her and me had breakfast before I came to the studio.”
1b. “Mom came to town this morning, and I and she had breakfast before I came to the studio.”
2 Which of the above statements do you think a young, radio announcer actually said as she started work?
2a (1a.) 2b (1b).
3a. ”I got tired while reading the article and lay down for a short nap.”
3b. “I got tired while reading the article and laid down for a short nap.”
4a. “No sooner had I lain down than I fell sound asleep.”
4b. “No sooner had I laid down than I fell sound asleep.”
5a. “You could see John was trying to impress Nancy. He was laying it on pretty thick.”
5b. “You could see John was trying to impress Nancy. He was lying it on pretty thick.”
6a. “Mary handed the groceries to him and I.”
6b. “Mary handed the groceries to me and him.”
7a. “Its been a long time since I studied grammar – if ever.”
7b. “It’s been a long time since I studied grammar – if ever.”
8a. “I’ts still important for a writer to know a little punctuation.”
8b. “Its’ still important for a writer to know a little punctuation.”
9a. “There was no one to whom I could give my report.”
9b. “There was no one to who I could give my report.”
10a. “Being in a dilapidated condition, I was able to buy the house very cheap.”
10b. “I was able to buy the house very cheap, because of its dilapidated condition.”
Answers to the quiz:
1 - b; 2 - a; 3 - a; 4 - a; 5 - a; 6 - b; 7 - b; 8 - ( a ringer, “E, none of the above.”); 9 - a; 10 - b.
Comments on the quiz items:
On 1) I tried to tempt you by putting the speaker’s partner before the speaker. This would be considered, perhaps, a little more polite, but it is a distraction; a. is grammatically incorrect, polite or not.
2) calls for a guess, of course, and so is not a real test of grammar, but it emphasizes a point. I heard it on a local radio station – driving through Nebraska a few years back. If that is what one hears from a radio announcer, for God’s sake, what’s going on?
3) is straight forward, just a test of which of two wholly different verbs gives the correct meaning
4) again straight forward – each is the past tense of a verb, but which is the correct verb?
5) a test of which of two verbs – having some forms in common – is correct here. The transitive verb, lay, is called for, because John was laying it (the object) on.
6) once more I threw in the “politeness” ambush just to mislead. It might seem more courteous to hand the groceries to him and me, than to me and him, but either statement is grammatically correct while the other is incorrect, because it has the conjunction, and, linking an objective case with a nominative case.
7) For questions about punctuation, see Truss.* It’s (contraction of ‘it” and “is”) true that the word, it, is extra complicated, because grammarians had to find a way to distinguish the contraction of “it is” from the possessive case of it, which has to be it’s to conform to the rule of showing possession by apostrophe (‘s). Example: “After biting the apple I said, “it’s rotten,” meaning it is rotten.
8) What can I say? Am I supposed to follow my own rules? I threw these misused apostrophes into the quiz because Truss fulminates against them as she finds them all over the place: signs in store windows, announcements of various agencies and even newspapers.
9) This one can be quite annoying, as many people have it just backwards.
10) Unintended humor of this sort results from unnoticed ambiguity.
* Truss gives a raft of hilarious examples, worth the price of the book by itself.
A Literary Quiz, or why speech identifies your social status.
1. Who was the English language author referred to in Heinlein’s motto at the top?
2. Name the work from which the reference is taken.
3. What character speaks the line that Heinlein cites?
3. Name the musical comedy based on this work.
Answers to the literary Quiz:
George Bernard Shaw, the playwright.
The play Pygmalion.
Professor Henry Higgins, a linguist who bets he can transform a street girl’s speech so that she can be passed off as a duchess in fashionable circles.
My Fair Lady.