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 English Usage, Old and New 

March 8, 2005 
These are the times that try English majors’ souls. The sacred rules we were taught, and struggled to grasp and live by, are violated in the daily papers, not to mention radio. Read Joe's columns the day he writes them.Doesn’t anyone these days know the difference between may and might?

I grant there are gray areas where either can be argued. But there are some areas that aren’t gray: “I might go to the movies tonight.”

I don’t want to seem priggish about this. I may wince inwardly at a split infinitive, and I try (with some strain) never to split one myself, but I don’t complain when others do it. The old taboo against the split infinitive was wrong, a bogus rule that violated idiomatic English. Nor need we be too fussy about who and whom. Different than may be better than different from, depending on the situation.

Likewise the taboo against ending a sentence with a preposition. A preposition can be a fine thing to end a sentence with. If you take all the old rules of proper usage seriously, Shakespeare will drive you nuts — a sure sign you’re taking refinement too far.

Shakespeare uses the English language with great subtlety, but also with idiomatic ease. He’s never haunted by rules. In some respects the English of his day was more emphatic than ours. I like him not, where the crucial adverb is climactic, has more power than the modern I do not like him, where the adverb gets buried in the middle of the sentence. Why have English-speakers abandoned this fine old form? Well, these things happen.

We should be annoyed by superfluous words, especially those meant to sound “official” — a real vice of our times. Many people now say “prior to” when “before” will do. The same sort of people say “despite the fact that” rather than “although.”

Modern Ideologies have imposed some onerous new rules. We are supposed to say “he or she” when he is perfectly clear, lest some touchy feminist throw a hissy fit. Samuel Johnson’s famous observation — “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life” — would now have to be amended to “When a man or woman is tired of London, he or she is tired of life”; an “improvement” that destroys the simple vigor of Johnson’s sentence.

[Breaker quote: Keeping up with the language]That goes for many old sayings about “man”: “What shall it profit a man to gain the whole world ... ” What is gained by changing that to “a man or a woman”?

The new rules are often bad for the same reason many of the old rules were: People don’t spontaneously talk that way, and their speech and writing lose force when they try to. Unless formality is called for, it’s more natural and more eloquent to speak of “man” than to speak of “the human race.”

“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” The same is true of language. When rules of usage impede simple expression, there is usually something wrong with them.

The new taboo on man is also a sign of another baneful modern tendency — toward abstraction and generalization, in preference to the concrete, the symbolic, the metaphorical. The simplest truths, as George Orwell observed, now tend to be stated in long-winded formulas.

Ideology has also burdened us with such neologisms as racist. Just what does this word mean? We hear it all the time, but nobody defines or explains it. How did Shakespeare and the King James Bible — and, in fact, all the great masters of the language — do without it?

An even sillier ideological coinage is homophobic. It signifies another unexplained disapproval, begging some obvious questions. What does it say that couldn’t be said with simple nouns and verbs? And again, how did the language survive so long without it?

Even stranger, if possible, is the word judgmental. To call someone “judgmental” is to accuse him of disapproving of something. But the word itself expresses disapproval. Methinks this calls for explanation too.

For all their defects, the rigid old rules of usage encouraged us to think critically about the words we use. That’s an excellent habit to cultivate. Without it, we find ourselves with too many rules and not enough reasons.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2005 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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