This is the launch of a blog that will touch on grammar, usage, etymology, phrasing, idioms, and other aspects of language. As a writer and a college writing and literature teacher, I’m obsessed with precision in expression, as well as with clarity and elegance. What follows are thoughts about those matters, beginning with a word or two about grammar.
In the debate over how to view grammar, descriptivists believe that a grammarian’s objective is to describe grammatical phenomena, rather than to prescribe proper English usage, while prescriptivists take it as their solemn mission to rule on acceptable and unacceptable practice. As a heretofore semi-closeted grammar geek, I fall somewhere in between. I consider some usages bad, even terrible, and am compelled to inveigh against them. At the same time, like a good descriptivist, I marvel at the constant, virtually Darwinian evolution of the language to accommodate new situations and needs. If common usage no longer heeds the rule against splitting an infinitive (no matter how awful “To be or to not be” may sound), who am I to throw myself down on the tarmac in protest?
My central interest, though, lies in the intriguing surprises that the combined history and plasticity of language yield. Knowing the reasoning behind a certain usage or appreciating its origins can both delight and instruct. Long-forgotten roots of words, when excavated, may excite wonder, explain an apparent linguistic mystery, or both. I tell my Shakespeare students, for example, that it’s not for nothing that, in the sixteenth century, the word intercourse meant “conversation,” “discourse.” The word didn’t acquire the meaning of “sexual union” until the early nineteenth century, yet the etymology says a great deal about the eroticism of pillow talk and the intimacy that mere discussion can breed between two people. In Shakespeare’s day, in other words, talking was highly esteemed sexual foreplay. The idea that two people might be attracted to each other and unite through the agency of language survives in the still current legal term criminal conversation, the name applied to an adulterous affair that leads to the dissolution of a marriage. In an era when we assume that sexual relationships depend mostly on touch, we might do well to acknowledge that words alone can both forge and destroy romance.
At times, a remarkable feature of language may intersect with an issue of grammar, occasioning the invocation of a grammatical “rule.” But in such cases, the issue is, for me, less the rule itself than the matters of clarity and stylistic grace, the one essential to any effective communication and the other a welcome enhancement to any writer. Following rules solely for the sake of doing so tends to earn prescriptivists a bad name, and rightly so: if you can’t justify your opinion about what’s “correct,” you leave yourself open to correction at best and, at worst, embarrassment, even ridicule. Yet abiding by certain grammatical rules often yields all manner of rewards to the careful writer.
A good example of an inane rule is the injunction against beginning a sentence with a coordinating conjunction like “but” or “and”; I’m forever trying to figure out why my students have heard that one in high school and still heed it (although I’d add that, in the interest of economy, an initial “and” can almost always be cut). The proper use of a semi-colon, on the other hand, is a rule worth following, since punctuation as a whole is a system of road signs that guide a reader. If I come upon the first part of a sentence like the one that begins this paragraph, the semi-colon tells me that what follows it will be a main clause—that is, a clause that could stand on its own as a complete sentence. But if what follows the semi-colon is a dependent clause—a sentence fragment, like “why my students have heard that one and still heed it”—I have to reread the sentence and, even then, am unable to make sense of it.
The goal of any writer, in my opinion, is to enable every sentence to make sense on first read.