Apparently today is National Grammar Day in the US, so it seems like a good time to revisit my previous post on the arbitrariness of language. (Some days I think about starting a blog on language, but I’d have to come up with a clever name for it and the best one’s already taken.) In the same way that free speech means you can say whatever you want, and everyone else can call you a twat if what you said was twattish, you’re free to make any language choices you want, but that doesn’t mean they’re not stupid choices.
…a properly placed comma could have prevented Bill Cosby from coming out as a bukkake advocate.
Like I said before, there’s nothing wrong with observing rules in language – they give consistency and make communication easier – as long as you acknowledge that they’re conventions, not gospel. But you can still argue that some rules are better than others. For me, it comes down to the reasoning behind the rule – is it logical? Is it useful? Is it workable? Is it, for that matter, actually true?
For example, the rule that you should use “less” for mass nouns and “fewer” for count nouns (less sand, but fewer grains of sand) preserves a useful distinction, which is why I think it’s a good rule and one I stick to (although it appears to be on the way out, like the word “whom”). The comma of direct address (“How are you, Jim?”) is a good rule to follow, because it avoids misunderstandings – if Dexys Midnight Runners had bothered to title their biggest hit “Come on, Eileen” there wouldn’t have been nearly as much scope for mockery, and a properly placed comma could have prevented Bill Cosby from coming out as a bukkake advocate.
A lot of the “rules” of modern grammar, though, are a result of some arsehole 400 years ago deciding that English should be more like Latin. I know of no good reason why you shouldn’t split an infinitive or start a sentence with “hopefully” if that’s that way the language is flowing, so I don’t have any time for those rules. Schools in England stopped teaching the “I before E, except after C” rule after it turned out that there are more words that break the rule than follow it. On the other hand, some rules are more stylistic or aesthetic choices – I don’t dig on the Oxford comma, other people do and that’s peachy.
Still, some things are just plain wrong (or at least indefensible). The one that gets me – my biggest peeve – is the greengrocer’s apostrophe, when people shoehorn an unwilling apostrophe into a plural – cat’s instead of cats, etc. Not because it’s a bad rule, but because it doesn’t seem to be a rule at all – it’s never consistently applied. If the people who perpetrated greengrocer’s apostrophes were applying a rule that you pluralise words by adding ‘s, that’d at least be understandable (and no less silly than pluralising “virus” and “hippopotamus” as “virii” and “hippopotami”*). But they never do – look at this:
Why “Singlet’s”, but not “T-Shirt’s” or “Boxer’s” or “Undergarment’s”? I swear, I’ve even seen people write “doctors and nurse’s”. If it was apparent that there was a definite rule that they were sticking to, even if it wasn’t standard, that’d be OK – it’s the fact that they seem to just fire apostrophes at the page like buckshot in the hope that one of them will end up in the right place that gets to me.
One of the main messages of language experts these days is “be right, but don’t be a dick about it” – Bill Walsh, a copy editor whose blog I’ve been reading for a long time, has a new book out called “Yes, I Could Care Less: How to Be a Language Snob Without Being a Jerk”. When I come up with a non-dickish equivalent of “Fucking… just… just don’t, OK? Just fucking don’t”, I’ll be sure to use it.
*Those are some good cases of people applying a rule that just isn’t true – I assume people think they’re following rules that existed in the languages that these words came from (usually Latin and/or Greek), but A) the rules were usually quite different from what they think and B) we’re speaking English for fuck’s sake. Don’t get me started “an historic”.