Monday, May 3, 2010

"Is English capable of sustaining demagogery...?"

11. Between You and I. A Little Book of Bad English by James Cochrane

Recently my days have just been filled with minute details of language, from reading The Chicago Manual of Style from cover to cover in an attempt of learning more about editing, to watching hilarious skits by Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie about English language (hence, the title).

Saara recommended this book to me after hearing me rant about the million different ways people spell 'definitely', the worst being 'diffinantly'. Yet, this person probably can spell the word 'definite' just fine. Somehow, adding that little adverbial '-ly' at the end makes people lose any idea of correct spelling.

This book is not about the most common mistakes people make and making fun of them, har har har. This is about the mistakes people make because teachers, scholars and journalists have by example or more explicitly shown us what the correct version of writing is--even when it is totally wrong. The classic example is already on the book cover: "Between you and I." People are terrified of saying "between you and me", because for some reason it sounds... uneducated. As if the accusative case is somehow more uneducated than the infinitive. So, "between you and me" is actually grammatically more correct, but for some reason we have been scared into saying "between you and I", although we'd never say "they stood between you and he" (it would be "him"). Still, The Chicago Manual of Style states that both "you and me" and "you and I" are correct when used with "between". So... carry on! (Otherwise, a simple way to check this rule is to drop the first part and see, whether you would still say "I" or "me". Such as, "They told you and I a story" would be wrong, because you'd never say "They told I a story.")

The book is structured like a dictionary, going down the alphabet one offense at a time. Here are some choicest examples of Cochrane's writing:

Irregardless This clownish word is so well disguised as a sensible one that it quite often slips by unnoticed...

Literally Literally means... literally. If we [...] say, "They were literally glued to their television screens," then we are using the word in literally the opposite of its correct sense and committing a serious abuse of our language.

me, us him/her, them A strange disease is afflicting supposedly educated writers and speakers of English... It takes the form of extreme nervousness amounting almost to terror concerning the use of me, us, him/her and them...

moment in time, at this This is an example of what might be called "speaking on autopilot." The phrase this moment automatically triggers the follow-up, in time. But if a moment is not "in time", then what is it in? [...F]or ordinary mortals it is surely enough to say at this moment or even, simply, now.

Like I said, I'm reading through The Chicago Manual of Style, the editors' Bible, and I'm not even half-way down the book, but many of these issues from Cochrane's book have already appeared. Things have surely changed from when I was taught to compose an academic paper or any text in English, for that matter: no longer is split infinitives a bad thing--or rather, they never were. Somewhere along the lines teachers just adopted this rule, and thus generations of clumsy sentences were produced. Same with conjunctions--no longer is it considered bad writing to begin sentences with Ands and Buts (the latter is actually a preferred option for However).

As a descriptivist, I do think that written grammar rules should not completely dictate what is "right or wrong" in language. It is a mode of language that is preferred for writing, and the preference is highly influenced by the language of those who are in power, but as we hear every day, people get by communicating with each other without knowing how to use the gerund perfectly. Most of the time when people talk about "bad" English they don't mean cases where someone has written flaunt instead of flout (which is the kind of bad English this book is about)--most people think that bad English is whatever is non-standard, which then causes unreasonable prejudices against people who do not speak standard, textbook English. I think it would be better if kids were taught in school that there is a time and a place for all the language they use--but they just have to know that different registers work at different places. Text message language is gr8t 4 txt msgs, because it uses the precious 140 characters smartly. Still, it cannot be used to write your job application, because that requires a whole 'nother register. Likewise, you cannot talk to your grandmother as if you were talking to your academic peers (unless, of course, your grandmother is one!), and you probably should refrain from slangy expressions in front of a lecture audience, especially if you come from a different region. Not only would they maybe not understand what your slang expression means, they might chalk it down to you being an ignorant baffoon--when you most certainly are not that. It is unfortunate that mere word choices or sentence structures create such ideas, but that's how it is.

Here is, by the way, that skit I referred to. I love it!

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