FOR THE Argument
EDMUND CARPENTER SAYS Grammar is snobbish nons
If next week is like this week, then one of our newspapers will quote the warning of some eminent person that the English language is in danger of being destroyed. Perhaps a professor will complain that university freshmen can't spell. The head of a large corporation will cry that none of his stenographers knows where to put commas. Or a teacher will demonstrate that the younger generation, far from being able to write, can't even read. All of which has some truth in it. But too often it misses the main point: writing and punctuation and grammar are not ends in themselves. Language has a far more important purpose than mere artistic expression, with grammar as a form of etiquette. Language reflects thought. As you think, so you speak. As you speak, so you think. As thinking changes, so language changes. Every effort to prevent language from changing puts a time lock on thinking. At heart, this is what the grammarian wants: to arrest thought.
What’s wrong with “ain’t”? The grammarian is not only a conservative, but a snob. Since most people, unconsciously, speak proficiently, a major task of universities is to train students to speak a special lingo that sets them apart from "others.” This is the function of all remedial English courses. Where such training is successful, the graduate is unmistakably a U, not a non-U. As a university product he affects, “It is I,” instead of the correct "It s me,” doesn't split infinitives, never ends a sentence with a preposition. avoids the double negative, and regards "ain't” as a low-class word. Now “ain't,” the contraction of “am not,” belongs in the same category as "isn't" and "aren’t.” The teacher who says, "Johnny, don’t say ain't,' say. Aren't I a good boy?' ” is wrong: “aren't” belongs to the plural or second person singular: “ain’t” is correct here. The usage. “It's me,” is due to the same reason that leads the French to say, "C’est moi.” Both “moi” and “me”, were originally accusatives; but “»rÍf’ ha^s come to be used as a special torjn of the pronoun in various constructions, sometimes for the nominative, sometimes for the accu-
vermin, by the purists and preservers of our speech. From the study of Latin, they long ago arrived at a false conception of universal grammar, based on laws of logic, and this they tried to impose on English—“to refine it,” as Dr. Johnson said, “to grammatical purity.” As long as they stuck to the middle class, they did little damage, but when education became general, and especially with the new media (radio, film, TV), they inflicted serious injury on English. For example, owing to their efforts a number of correct usages have been stigmatized as incorrect. The most conspicuous is the double negative, which was perfectly correct in the time of Chaucer, lingered on till the age of Shakespeare, and is still current in the speech of the vast majority of English-speaking people. Owing, however, to the logical (hut most unpsychological) notion that doubling a negative destroys it instead of strengthening it, this idiom, although it was correct in Greek and is four in French, Spanish, and Russian, regarded as a gross vulgarism in ern English. By this argumej^ triple negative would give a n; “I never broke no hones nob' Shakespeare used the parative and double “more better.” “more boldest,” “most link' suffered from a clearness and vigo logical symmetry^ “For to” join6* an be stored is now too vu I and although it v plywood Bible. (“Ws ^or Pan'
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“Schools teach a make-believe correctness that has practically no currency outside the class"
more than one man a promotion in the British Foreign Office, a snobbery that led Churchill to write: "This is the sort of English up with which I will not put."
This idea that the preposition should always precede the word it governs, that it DS better to say "the man to whom 1 had written” than “the man I had written to,” has become widely accepted, although the idiom is perfectly good English. It has been condemned because it wasn’t found in Latin or in languages derived from Latin. How consonant it is with speech rhythms, the vigor and conciseness it adds, when skilfully used, can be appreciated in Bacon: “Houses are built to live in. and not look on," and "Revenge is a kind of wild justice, which the more man’s nature runs to, the mere ought law to weed it out”; or in Addison: "Odd and uncommon characters are the game that 1 look for, and most delight in.”
There’s a story of a little girl who said, ' I want to be read to.” and her mother replied. “What do you want to be read to out of?” This goes on until the mother, bringing the wrong book upstairs, is asked, "Now why did you bring that book that I do not want to be read to out of up for?” Obviously she was no college product or she would have known that a preposition is a bad word to end a sentence with.
Too subtle for textbooks
The split infinitive is considered inelegant, and "this here” a vulgarism, but both were once in good taste and are linguistically defensible. “Try and stop me” or "try and go” resist all efforts at changing to "try to” because the former have a speech rhythm that the latter lacks. "I nega rd I ess” is more emphatic than "regardless.”
School authorities seldom understand the nature of language and usually direct their energies to teaching a make-believe correctness that has practically no currency outside the classroom. Language is too subtle a register of human relations and thought to trust it to textbooks. For example, an English-speaking mother says to her child. “John, be good!”; a French mother says. "Jean, sois sage!" (be wise); a Swedish mother, "Jan, var snelU" (be friendly); a German mother, "Han, sei artig!" (get back in line); and a Hopi mother, "No. no, no —that’s not the Hopi way.”
Language can reflect politics. Both English and German added new words during the Second World War, hut how different they were! Americans coined the terms amputee, draftee, dischargee, payee, to denote roles of the little man, but there were no corresponding "-er” words (employee-employer), no terms for the men who amputated, drafted, discharged or paid. But in German the opposite was true. New words denoted leaders, not the led, commanders, not those commanded.
Language can reflect class. In Japanese and Javanese, for example, the speaker, through grammar, must indicate the listener’s status relative to himself.
Language can reflect character. In Chaucer’s English "up" in post position meant a loss of personal strength: to throw up, give up, die up, yield up, surrender up. Today it means the reverse—a strengthening of the self: to face up, speak up. clean up. fix up. Unlike “out” (to work out. think out, clean out), "up” implies speed, direction, strength. Yet conservative grammarians oppose this exciting, spontaneous use of "up” as not good English.
But what excites the purists most is phrases like "Jeat jet?” for "Have you eaten yet?” This involves, of course, more than words alone, it concerns grammatical categories, which are the very basis of thought. "Jeat jet?” involves a codification of experience quite different from "Have you eaten yet?” It’s not just sloppy diction, adolescent indifference to language. Every language is open-ended—that is, designed for change. English is no exception. In spite of the efforts of academicians, spoken English is becoming polysynthetic. Sentences are less frequently composed of little words chronologically ordered, more frequently of tight conglomerates that are phrases in their own right, both in sound and meaning.
Spoken English is freeing itself from the printed page. Print never accurately recorded English. It left out tones and gesture, destroyed polysynthetic constructions, and created phonemic redundancy. Yet print’s prestige has been so great for three hundred years that speech has imitated it, and ignored those aspects of English that print couldn’t reproduce.
By the eighteenth century scholars talked as if they were reading aloud. Here’s a passage from Tristram Shandy whose author, Laurence Sterne, was noted for having accurately recorded the “correct” speech of his day:
For this reason I have the greatest veneration in the world for that gentleman. who. in distrust of his own discretion in this point, sat down and composed (that is, at his leisure) fit forms of swearing suitable to all cases, from the highest provocation which could possibly happen to him, and such moreover as he could stand up to. he kept them ever by him on the chimney piece, within his reach, ready for use.
Seventy-six words—a literary written expression. This was fine for philosophical discussion, but it must have made dry going at the breakfast table.
By Victorian times genteel conversation had become witty and slick, while that of the illiterate working man was considered not only vulgar, but wrong. What was considered "right” was nothing less than speech distorted by print. Oscar Wilde set the style in the love scene between Gwendolen Fairfax and John Worthing in The Importance of Being Earnest:
Jack: Charming day it has heen. Miss Fairfax.
Gwen: Pray don’t talk to me about
the weather, Mr. Worthing. Whenever people talk to me about the weather I always feel quite certain that they mean something else. And that makes me so nervous.
Jack: I do mean something else. Gwen: I thought so. In fact, I am never wrong.
Jack: And I would like to be allowed to take advantage of Lady Bracknell’s temporary absence . . .
Gwen: I would certainly advise you to do so. Mamma has a way of coming back suddenly into a room that I have often had to speak to her about. Jack: (Nervously) Miss Fairfax, ever since I met you I have admired you more than any girl ... I have ever met since ... I met you.
Gwen: Yes, I am quite aware of the fact. And I often wish that in public at any rate, you had been more demonstrative. For me you have always had an irresistible fascination. Even before I met you I was far from indifferent to you. We live, as I hope you know, Mr. Worthing, in an age of ideals. The fact is constantly mentioned in the more expensive monthly magazines, and has reached the provincial pulpits I am told: and my ideal has always been to love some one of the name of Ernest. There is something in that name that inspires absolute confidence. The moment Algernon first mentioned to me that he had a friend called Ernest, I knew I was destined to love you.
If the twentieth century has done nothing else, at least it has branded the Worthings and Fairfaxes as outright menaces to a living language. By the 1920s the trade-mark of realism was a minimum of syntax, a maximum of understatement. Here, from what might be a modern novel in the Hemingway tradition, is an example:
General: Where is she, Harry? Bartender: There.
General: No, the other one. Bartender: Which other one? General: The girl. Mignonette. Bartender: Who?
General: You know who.
Bartender: Why do I know who? General: It’s almost always the other one with me.
Bartender: Yes, the other one. General: Well?
Bartender: Over at La Chienne Morte. General: Alone?
Bartender: Not alone.
General: There are people with her? Bartender: Yes, there are people with her.
General: Who is this one?
Girl: I’m alone.
General: . . . Alone.
This could continue until the Nobel Prize is awarded.
In New York there’s the Damon Runyon variation that features such immortal characters as the late Slat Slavins and Willie the Warbler. All of Runyon’s characters speak in the present tense, even when the past or future are described. This is intentional, for as any good storyteller knows, the past is dead, the future doubtful. For a story to live it must have potentiality, which the past lacks, and it must appear to be true, which the future cannot do.
Comics, ads. radio and TV rarely employ anything but the present tense. They do this, not because of indifference to language or sloppiness in speech, but because of broad changes in our society that language is sensitive enough to record.
This timeless quality in language re-
flects a type of thinking where the before and after give way to the now. It’s all there is: the past is summed up in it, the future implicit in it. Those who object to this use of the present tense are really objecting to the new type of life we are living, which is irrelevant to how language functions within that life.
Literate English emphasizes tenses reflecting chronological time: past, present, future. Oral languages rarely, if ever, do this; some lack tenses altogether. Moreover, written English emphasizes nouns. The first words our children learn are names for things: man, ball, dog. Oral languages, however, usually focus on actions and events.
Spoken English is changing in both of these respects. We no longer think in terms of Newton, but Einstein, not of free-flowing uni-dimensional time, but of the multiple perspective of modern art, TV and the newspaper front page. And our grammar is beginning to reflect this.
Radio, film and TV have smashed print’s monopoly of English and set it free to become once more an oral language. Tones, for example, are a vital part of all oral languages. Some African groups can reduce a message to tones alone and then transmit it by “talking” drums. But our alphabet couldn’t depict tones, and so tones gradually went out of English.
Are the dictionaries wrong?
For a time the manuscript tried to convey tones by spatial ordering—something like an e. e. cummings poem— but print destroyed even this. Punctuation was invented at this time as breathing notations for actors and orators, but later it was used as part of grammar, and today is employed with little reference to tone.
Look at the fate of Shakespeare’s sonnets. His nineteenth-century editors thought. “Poor Will—a good poet, but he never went to college or learned to punctuate.” So they changed his punctuation, making hundreds of unjustified emendations. But Shakespeare's punctuation had a deadly accuracy. He lived in an age when English was still primarily an oral language, when its tonal qualities were vital for meaning. His nineteenthcentury editors, however, lived in an age in which print dominated English. Blindly following rules conceived in ignorance, they changed his punctuation and thus destroyed the meaning of hundreds of his lines.
Print also creates redundancy. English has forty-five phonemes, or minimal, meaningful sound units, but only twentysix letters in the alphabet. To use this alphabet, it’s necessary to link letters to represent sounds. Such linkages make English highly redundant. Electronic engineers have found that they can sometimes eliminate up to fifty-five percent of the letters in a message. Here’s a sample: WENTYIVE PRCET OF HE LTTRS I TIS SENTENCE HVEBEN DLETED AT RANM. We can read it without trouble or error. Written English can be drastically abbreviated without loss of intelligibility. Thus, “q” is always followed by “u”; why not drop the “u”—spell “queen” “qeen”?
We hear a lot nowadays about bad spelling, but are the misspellings in the students' essays or in the dictionaries? Students today do what monks did in the Middle Ages—spell words the way they sound, rather than the way they look. They obey their ears, not their eyes. The problem is intensified by the fact that spoken English is changing more rapidly than written English; the gap
between them widens each year, leaving written English an archaic form.
Print is also unable to depict body gestures, which play a vital part in oral languages. A movement of the hand may be a modifier; a shift of the shoulder, a verb. When combined with spoken words, such movements—called ‘‘kines” —follow a genuine syntax. I wonder if an academician, living in a world of books, can ever understand why a boxer watches his opponent’s eyes.
Movies and TV are aiding us in the recovery of this gesture and facial awareness. Educators who bemoan this type of communication, who cry "illiteracy,” are in a broader sense themselves illiterate. They simply cannot understand those aspects of language that print cannot reproduce. Print enjoys great prestige; but let's be frank about it—if language is designed to communicate, then the most efficient form of communication is hardly the one that needs correction.
I offer no immediate solution to this problem, but 1 do suggest we stop criticizing students until w'e ourselves at least understand the problem. Our culture is changing: so is our language. It does no good to try to turn back the clock two hundred years and pretend we’re sitting in the Mitre listening to Johnson and Boswell.
This nonsense about equating books with "true” culture, of ridiculing newspapers and TV because they are mass media, is grossly misleading. English is a mass medium. All languages are mass media. Radio, film and TV are just new languages, their grammars as yet unknown. Print was the first mechanized mass medium. Yet today it is being promoted by scholars as the only hope for true “kulcha.”
Recently the Rt. Hon. Vincent Massey wrote: "As a means of serious communication, there is no substitute for the book . . . Books are above all others the means by which the individual may be nourished and a free society preserved ... If books are, indeed, ‘on the ropes’ so are all the values of our civilization.” The implication here is that not only arc the values of our culture being replaced by new ones, but that the new ones are mean and vulgar.
Cyril Connolly, the English critic, put it more bluntly: "The more books we read, the sooner we perceive that the function of a writer is to produce a masterpiece and that no other task is of any consequence. All excursions into journalism, broadcasting, propaganda and writing for films, however grandiose, are doomed to disappointment. To put of our best into these forms is another folly, since thereby we condemn good ideas, as well as bad, to oblivion. It is in the nature of such work not to last, so it should never be undertaken.”
These are the embalmers of language who want to lay thought to rest between hard covers. With the mortician’s gleam, they come to bury the book, not to praise it. To them, the most useless communication is talk. Truth, science, democracy, even poetry and art, they believe, can exist and be transmitted only in visual form, as written language.
But great culture has never existed under a communication monopoly. The binding power of any monopoly stifles creativity. In the past when the oral and written traditions coexisted side by side, neither dominating the other, as in fifth-century Athens or the Elizabethan Age, the human spirit reached its highest moments. We live in similar times. Print’s domination of thought has come tumbling down like the walls of Jericho. English is freeing itself to become an oral language.