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January 11, 2005

Should Grammar Rules Evolve? Conservative and Liberal Attitudes

The American Spectator has an article on grammar that says
Often there is good reason to be skeptical of change, particularly when it comes about out of laziness and the dumbing-down of grammar rules. Again, compare Fowler's inflexible 1926 Dictionary of Modern English Usage to current grammars like Woe is I, in which rules that are troublesome or too difficult to remember are pronounced outdated or dead. (Rats, if I had known this was possible in my college days I would have pronounced Algebra outdated and dead and gotten on with my binge drinking.)

What the conservative sees as threats to the mother tongue are dismissed by the linguist as the natural progression of language, and nature trumps civilization (here represented by long-established rules) every time. These threats include the politicization of language, as in politically correct speech; threats from bureaucrats, businessmen, and politicians who use language to obfuscate, confuse and deceive, or in the case of academics to disguise a dearth of ideas; and, finally, threats from linguists who promote a laissez- faire approach to language.

This came up in class yesterday as I was going over how to fix flawed sentences. At what point should correct usage change to match spoken language?

That it should is clear. Strunk and White say that "claim" should not be used to mean "assert", as in "I claim that good writing is important," and should be reserved for the meaning "lay claim to". That limitation is wrong now-- as wrong as to use "prevent" to mean "come before", the King James Version meaning.

It is also true, however, that there is such a thing as correct usage. Indeed, it could not change if it did not exist. And correct usage does not change as fast as spoken English, nor does it match certain aspects that are long-established. Correct usage excludes obscenity, for example, despite the laxity even of conservative magazines now, and in formal contexts it excludes contractions.

Which approach to call "conservative" and which to call "liberal" is not as clear as you might think. Naturally, it is conservative to wish to keep rules the same. But a central feature of conservatism is the idea of the organic growth of society-- that it should gradually evolve rather than being established by decree, shoudl be decentralized rather than centralized. Writing rules that fight the evolution of language are an example of central establishment. One place where we can see the disadvantage of rules is in spelling. If rules were laxer, it would have simplified over the centuries.

Liberals are now trying to establish liberalism in the language by the use of grammar rules. They are using gender-neutered language, and not just using it in their own writing, but teaching it in schools and putting it in the manuals of style. This is an example not of evolutionary change so much as a conscious attempt to prescribe new rules that will change spoken usage. Nobody says in everyday speech, "A truckdriver must be careful to stay awake. Otherwise she might have a crash," but you see that kind of thing in academic writing.

The correct approach is for the manuals of style to keep the written language a few decades behind the spoken language, and to make it match spoken language rather than follow consistent rules. Following this philosophy, "hopefully" can now be used to mean "one hopes that" instead of just "with a hopeful attitude", but "he/she" cannot be used in place of "he". This, I think, is Fowler's approach in the classic book mentioned above.

Posted by erasmuse at January 11, 2005 09:51 AM

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