Arrant Pedantry

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Standards of Usage

Grammar is a poorly understood and much-maligned word. It’s usually used to mean the set of rules governing all aspects of language—a tedious and convoluted list of strictures and prohibitions telling us what we should and shouldn’t say or write. It’s a subject that most people do not like and one that they do not find very useful in real life. It’s also one that most people are very insecure about. For example, whenever people learn that I’m an editor, I typically get one of the following reactions: (1) they have no idea what an editor does, or (2) they get nervous and say, “Well, I ain’t got no good grammar.” It’s really amazing how many people have uttered that exact phrase.

Hated though it may be, grammar is an important subject, especially in a world that relies more and more on written communication. So, first off, let’s define some terms. Grammar is the study of word forms (morphology) and sentence structure (syntax). These are fields that native speakers typically have no problems with. We all know how form plurals and past tenses and how to string words together to form a sentence. Usage is the far more relevant field, the one that tells us not to use ain’t or double negatives. Style is the set of rules governing more aesthetic issues like punctuation and capitalization.

The problem is that usage rules are not handed down from on high (unless you consider teachers and editors to be prophets, that is). In many ways, usage rules are like fashion rules: they are a generally accepted set of guidelines intended to keep you from looking stupid. Of course, usage guidelines are far more enduring than fashion rules. Unfortunately, many of those long-lived rules are more apocryphal than canonical, and many of the self-proclaimed prophets are false.

So it is with hesitation and much hemming and hawing that I answer questions like the recent one from my sister: “Should it be ‘than I’ instead of ‘than me’?” To me, these are never simple yes-or-no questions. It all depends on the context, the level of formality, the preferences of the speaker, and so on. When speaking to friends, it would sound odd—nay, wrong—to use the more formal “than I.” Grammar is a fairly straightforward field, but usage is a quagmire of history, context, pontification, and pedanticism.

But how can an editor and a graduate in English language speak such blasphemy? Shouldn’t I be the one defending good wholesome rules like “than I”? Again, this is not a simple yes-or-no question. I may be a defender of the language, but I defend what I have come to believe is right, not what outdated textbooks, fastidious English teachers, or long-dead pedagogues decreed as correct.

The English I defend is good and simple. It is not full of Latinate rules that never applied to English. It is not full of petty distinctions that fly in the face of the usage of educated speakers. It is elegant, simple, clear, and free from awkwardness. It is English as it is and should be, not English as it never was.

And that, my friends, is my standard of usage.

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An Introduction to Historical Linguistics

Historical linguistics is a field that many people don’t know a whole lot about. We all speak a language, and we all know that our words came from somewhere else, but we don’t always have the clearest idea as to where or why. So people speculate and come up with plausible explanations of word origins—what we call folk etymologies.

The problem is that etymologies are quite often not intuitive, nor can they be determined solely through deductive reasoning. Words take very circuitous paths on their way from history to the present. Over the course of a couple thousand years, a word can change so thoroughly that it becomes unrecognizable. Words that look similar aren’t always related, and words that are related don’t always look similar.

Take, for instance, just a few of the Indo-European words for five: fünf (German), cinq (French), pump (Welsh), cóig (Scottish), pénte (classical Greek), pyat’ (Russian), pãch (Hindi), and panj (Farsi). Believe it or not, all these words—as disparate as they seem—are related; they come from the same word, *penkwe. They may look very different, but they all changed via systematic sound changes.

Think of it like a Rubik’s cube: you start out with all the colors on their respective sides, and then you start turning the faces. Pretty soon, it’s a complete jumble. There doesn’t seem to be any sort of pattern to the arrangement of the colors now, but they didn’t get that way by chance; you made a specific series of twists to get them to end up the where they are.

This means that you can’t assume two words are related just because they look alike, or that two words aren’t related because they don’t look alike. Looking alike is a good start, but that’s all it is; next you have to find the systematic changes that connect the words. Historical linguistics isn’t just guesswork or finding lists of words that have a couple of sounds in common. It’s about knowing where the language has been and how languages change and then filling in the blanks.

There are lots of books and sites out there that purport to show that German comes from Hebrew or that Welsh and Hindi are closely related or any number of other weird claims. However, the thing that these all lack is systematicity. Without a system and without a knowledge of how languages change, historical linguistics is nothing more than a meaningless matching game. You can take the stickers off the Rubik’s cube and rearrange them to look good, but you haven’t really solved the puzzle.

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