Wednesday, October 27, 2010

My favorite grammar rules!!!

Folks, if you follow this blog, you know I love language. (Yes, even German, though I've got a bit of a love-hate relationship with that one.) I love the way a language evolves and changes -- so something that's "wrong" in one century can be A-OK in another. And as I've said, I like my grammar rules descriptive rather than proscriptive, and I love the way -- in English, at least -- it's OK to play with the language and break the rules in fun and amusing new ways!

Then I saw this video slamming grammar pedants:

Stephen Fry Kinetic Typography – Language from Matthew Rogers

The thing is that I agree with almost everything he says, and yet... it's just so negative. It's too easy to be so gratuitously mean to the poor little grammar pedants, whom everybody just loves to hate! It makes me want to argue the other side. (Yes, I'm just that ornery!!!)

So now I'll tell you about some proscriptive grammar rules that I like:

#1. Words getting new meanings: I love words getting new meanings when it enriches the language, but I hate it when they get new meanings that just increase ambiguity. Here's an example:

"Hopefully he'll finish the job by tomorrow."

Now, I know that in some theoretical sense "hopefully" is supposed to mean "in a hopeful manner." But the meaning of the example sentence is totally clear, and the obvious alternative ("I hope he'll finish the job by tomorrow") doesn't mean quite the same thing. Plus, you can still use "hopefully" to mean "in a hopeful manner" -- it's generally clear from context which you mean. So, thumbs-up on the sorta-non-standard use of "hopefully."

This one, on the other hand, is just sad:

"She was literally fifty feet tall!"

Now, I hate to be the pedant, but it's so nice to have one simple word that you can count on to mean "You may think I'm exaggerating or speaking in metaphor, but I'm not." 'Nuff said.

#2. The "Blog" of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks. I know, I know, it's just those mean old pedants who insist that when you put something in quotation marks, that means that somebody said or says it. Yet it's still hilarious to make fun of the signs where people screw this one up!!! ;^)

#3. "Between him and I." This one, IMHO, is the funniest grammar rule of them all. It's the mark of the grammar pedant's victim. It's like someone has heard too many teachers say "Don't say 'Me and Sally went to the store,' it's Sally and I." Then the grammar-pedant-victim starts to imagine that the rule is "Whenever you think you might want to say 'me and X' you should instead say 'X and I'."

And the funny part is that it's not such a stupid mistake if you think about it. It's actually possible for a human language to have a rule like that where you use one pronoun when grouping with a conjunction and a different pronoun without one. Hell, German has pronoun-usage rules that are way crazier than that one!! (I kid. I kid because I love.)

Anyway, I've actually even heard pseudo-grammar-pedants enforcing the above (imaginary) rule! Yes, indeedy! I heard someone say something like "Don't say 'He spoke with Sally and me' -- it's 'Sally and I'." That one made my inner anthropologist's day, for some reason.

Do you have any faves?


Lars Larson said...

I am somewhat of a grammar Nazi at home, and it has proved effective, but I also enforce the rule that neither of my boys EVER correct someone else's grammar. We all make mistakes and the language is a dynamic thing. But I loved the comments made by Stephen Fry, having seen this a couple weeks ago, and didn't find them at all negative, just cautionary. I think that it is very important to remember to not be a language bigot, as it were, and make judgments about people based on their usage and accent. I scold myself at times wondering why all annoying preachers seem to affect a southern accent even when they don't actually have one, for example.

But for my daily peeve, since you ask, I don't point out a common grammar flaw so much as an inflection trend. I posted on Facebook yesterday after a particularly torturous experience in a meeting at work:

"Please, don't make everything you say to me a question? It is really hard to to distinguish the real questions? From the statements that aren't questions? If you make every goddamn thing you say sound like a question? Are you continually asking me? For permission to continue? Get it?"

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Lars!!!

That's a good one! I wouldn't say it's a grammatical error so much as an annoying stylistic trait. ;^)

Re: I think that it is very important to remember to not be a language bigot, as it were, and make judgments about people based on their usage and accent.

So true. I always pay attention to usage and accents, though, because I'm fascinated by language in action.

Carla Schmidt Holloway said...

#3 - I have a sibling who tried to force that one on me, who's known for her superb grammar and etiquette. tee-hee!

I love using bad grammar in front of "intellectual" people to highlight the fact that I come from a town of just over 900 people surrounded in every direction by cornfields.

The dumbest? "Gay means happy, not homosexual!" I don't know how it's supposed to prove anything, maybe that gay people are language thieves as well as sexual deviants. But of course to a population that doesn't believe in the evolution of the species, how can one explain the evolution of language?

Louise said...

I think nouns becoming verbs is very interesting. My brother gets really frustrated when I say I'll "skype" him. He is far from a grammar expert, but for some reason has a particular issue with this one. So I say it just to annoy him, I think he's being ridiculous! :-D

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Carla!!!

Cool, it's great to be open about the way you were brought up to talk.

This is not exactly the same thing, but I have grammar rules that I break openly on purpose, too. For example, I always say "hurted" instead of "hurt" just because I don't like the ambiguous irregular past tense. "My shoes hurt me." (Did they hurt you one time in the past, or habitually???)

Consequently, my kids are probably learning some not-offically-correct English... ;)

Hey Louise!!!

Verbing is an interesting question. It can lead to unnecessarily long words where a verb gets changed into a noun and then back onto a verb. (eg. why say utilize instead of use?)

OTOH, it is extremely useful in many cases! How else can you say that you're going to skype someone???

Joe said...

I literally loathe the abuse of the word literal.

I'm also amused at how many so called grammar rules were made up by ignoramuses convinced that English was a Latin language.

All languages evolve. The results of this are sometimes annoying (such as misunderstanding the word "perfect", the change of the word "gay" and even the phrase "make love") and sometimes hilarious (such as not realizing just how vulgar Shakespeare really is, which results in things like KBYU showing the Helen Hunt presentation of Twelfth Night, which is a play about sex, cross-dressing, homosexuality, oral sex and more sex.)

C. L. Hanson said...

Joe -- lol, so true!!! :D

Aerin said...

I highly recommend reading David Foster Wallace's essay about grammar and the dictionary of usage in "Consider the Lobster".

Evidently his mom used to hold her breath at the dinner table until her kids' realized the grammar mistake they had made.

So yes, language and usage are interesting - but at some point one has to let it go. I think moderation is the key.

But I had a much better understanding of common English rules when studying other languages. Studying other languages can help a person's understanding of English.

MoHoHawaii said...

I was thinking about that David Foster Wallace essay, too.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Aerin and MoHoHawaii!!!

Sounds fascinating -- I have to look it up!