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The New York Sun


Beware the Witches of Grammar

December 20, 2007

By John H. McWhorter

One of my books was a flop.

In "Doing Our Own Thing" I described the increasing informality in the public use of English with a combination of affection and regret. It never really caught on. The reviews were tepid. Even my friends rarely get to the end of it.

Part of the problem was that it stretched what should have been an article into book length. But another was a misleading subtitle: "The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care." That was a mistake, because it led readers to think I was going to do a rant about people making grammatical "mistakes."

However, not only was that not the book's argument, but I wrote it in a breezy tone with little concern for Strunk & White. This deeply irritated quite a few readers.

The fierceness with which people hold to the idea that there are things English speakers say that contravene logic, and thus constitute lapses in intelligence, grace, and civility, is a peculiar experience for a linguist. There are various reasons why linguists consider it absurd to, for example, claim that in the sentence, "Hopefully, he will arrive soon," hopefully is used "erroneously" unless the intended meaning is that the person will arrive in hopeful spirit.

Logic dictates, we are told, that hopefully, as an adverb, must modify the verb, and that for the adverb to describe the mental state of the person uttering the sentence is "not logical."

But one problem here is that assorted constructions in English which make no sense whatsoever are considered thoroughly proper.

Shouldn't we say "amn't I" instead of aren't I? Aren't is "wrong" since there's no "I are." Yet if you started saying "amn't" you'd lose most of your friends.

You can dab, and you can dabble. You can dance a jig and you can jiggle. The -le ending connotes that the action is rapid and repetitive. But if wiggle means to squirm rapidly, then why isn't there a verb to wig that refers to the undulating motion of a hula dance? Why doesn't the mighty Mississippi River trick majestically along? This doesn't make any sense. Why, then, the obsession with "logic" i.e., hopefully and the like?

Why do we say, "Justin, you were naughty" instead of "Justin, you was naughty"? "Logically," it should go I was, you was, he/she was, we were, you (folks) were, they were. Was as singular and were as plural.

That's even how it once was in standard English. Here's a passage from a letter written by a young New Yorker in the 1830s:

"I was so perfectly astonished in the first place, to see you going home without appearing even to think of me, and then when I met you at the door to find out that you was angry with me, I knew not what to make of it."

Note that this man was an elegant writer. The was is no slip of the pen; he uses it the same way often in his letters, as did none other than John Adams in letters to his wife.

We don't use it that way now because of a decision that were was "better" because in earlier English you had been used only with were. Once again, we are to assume that it's okay to make sense in some cases but not others, with no overall rationale.

And typically of an ideology with no overall rationale, the notion of "logic" in English drifts like fashion. One hundred and fifty years ago, the grammar police would have condemned the following sentence as full of "mistakes:"

"Let's have a look at the first two chapters I have excerpted, where we learn about the period when the Cross-Bronx Expressway was being built from the standpoint of people who were born in East Tremont."

Have a look, first two, being built, standpoint, and born in were all considered "illogical." I need not burden you with the reasons. Quite clearly, they were arbitrary, and blissfully evanescent.

English, like all languages, is full of constructions that do not cohere logicalally. At any given time, a certain subset of these constructions are held up as gaffes. Endless energy is misdirected into obsessing over trivial aspects of form rather than engaging with content.

This tradition of grammatical witchhunting is founded so deeply in perceptions of intelligence and social standing that no amount of argumentation, I suspect, could penetrate it meaningfully.

Nevertheless, I will remain bemused by someone reviling "sloppy grammar" and yet utterly comfortable saying "Aren't I the one you were talking to?"

Original Source:



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