You know they're out there, but you seldom come across them. The ones torturing scientific data to prove that the earth is only about six thousand years old. The ones laboring to eliminate critical thinking from the public school curriculum. The ones who have documentary proof that Barack Obama was not born in the United States.
Here in Wordville, we understand that the peeververein is numerous, but the fauna we come across tend to be minor cranks holding on to some half-remembered or half-understood schoolroom precepts. But over at Sesquiotica, James Harbeck has encountered a bull-goose loony. In a comment on the post "Grammar Girl is not where it's at,"* nrom3881 writes:
You’re splitting infinitives. Infinitives are a single word, despite being composed to two elements. “… someone to just tell them” should be “… someone just to tell them.” The placement of the adverb needs to be shifted in order to accompany the infinitive. If English were more like Latin, this wouldn’t be a problem. English, unfortunately, is a very incomplete language. On that note, we don’t have a true infinitive case. What we’re doing is tacking a preposition in front of verbs to emulate the function; instead, we should have created an inflectional rule.
Mr. Harbeck ably demolishes this nonsense in a comment, which I recommend to you. But for a moment, let's just relish this and roll it around on the tongue. English not like Latin, that's the problem. It should have more inflections! Get to work on that, will you? Maybe you could start applying gender to inanimate objects, too.
And English is an incomplete language. (nrom3881 also disparages sentences that begin with conjunctions. Pity he wasn't about to advise Bishop Lancelot Andrewes and the other translators of the Authorized Version, who were given to that sort of thing.) I suppose it must be incomplete in the sense that it lacks features to be found in other languages. It doesn't have those Latin inflections. It lacks the middle voice of Greek. It doesn't have an epicene pronoun.**
In that sense, any language is incomplete. And messy. Messiness, John McWhorter explains, is one of the essential characteristics of human language. Languages are not logical. Not pure. Not manifestations of some Platonic ideal. That's where the fun is.
Look at English, or rather Englishes, because there are a lot of them. We have British English and American English, and M Lynne Murphy's hugely entertaining Separated by a common language explores the two. There's Australian English. There's black English among the many colloquial varieties of American English. Show of hands if you really think that the proverbial "When Mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy" would be improved as the whitebread "If Mother is not happy, no one is."
As English as a world language brushes against other tongues and cultures, things will happen that Robertson Davies foresaw thirty years ago in The Rebel Angels: "Funny how languages break down and turn into something else. Latin was rubbed away until it degenerated into dreadful lingos like French and Italian and Spanish, and lo! people found out that quite new things could be said in those degenerate languages — things nobody had ever thought of in Latin. English is breaking down now in the same way — becoming a world language that every Tom Dick and Harry must learn, and speak in a way that would give Doctor Johnson the jim-jams. Received Standard English has had it; even American English, that once seemed such an impertinent johnny-come-lately in literature, is fusty stuff compared with what you will hear in Africa, which is where the action is, in our day.”
Let's help the unskilled master the standard written dialect for workplace and career purposes, as Grammar Girl has been doing. Those who are impervious to instruction can be edited. Let's warn the naive against specimens like nrom3881who would turn their writing, and their speech, into stiff and stilted instruments. Let's all enjoy the gaudy stuff the language generates.
*A moment, please, to defend Grammar Girl's honor. Though I don't agree with Mignon Fogarty on every jot and tittle of her advice, I admire what she has accomplished. Writing for non-specialists (unlike the sophisticates who flock here), people who know mainly the old schoolroom grammar, if any, she explains informed usage with a minimum of technical language. She is sensible and admirably clear. And if she sometimes gives get-along, go-along advice that concedes ground to the peeververein, we should remember that her readers are very likely to be in thrall to the tinpot bosses who exact obedience to their ignorant beliefs about language and usage. She has a multitude of followers, and she has earned them.
**No, wait, it does. It's they.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement