The State of the Language: 'For the Ear Trieth Words, as the Mouth Tasteth Meat'


FROM that wide-ranging English editor and publicist, S. K. Ratcliffe, come some arresting observations prompted by remarks of mine on characteristic differences between British and American uses of language. Writing aboard the Mariposa at Suva, he says among other things: ‘I think it would be found that, in general, English practice involves a somewhat greater exactness: that is, the use of words which do not need to be explained. Thus, an English person knows precisely what is meant by blind, shutter, button, stud, biscuit, cracker — while in every one of these cases a definition would be needed in America if precision were being aimed at. And so with such terms as highball. When we say whiskey-and-soda, that is that. But when an American orders a highball he has to tell what it is to consist of.

‘In England underground is not the same as subway, although, since the consolidation of London transport (you say transportation), underground is the general label. The old underground corresponded roughly to the New York subway: it is near the surface. If we say we are going by underground, we don’t need to add which; if we are going by the Tube, which is the deeper system, we say tube. Economy and precision at once. Similarly, tart is not the equivalent of pie. If we meant the round plate-pie general in America, we should give it a name that could not be mistaken; over the greater part of England the London usage of tart for what you call deepdish pie is looked upon as just feeble cockney. Lancashire and Yorkshire know just what is meant by pie, when attached to apple, plum, or pork! Again, take an example that used to amuse me when the newspapers were struggling with the domesticities of Calvin Coolidge: the difficulty they had in telling how C. C. lived in Massasoit Street — one half of a two-family house, and so forth. We should have said simply that his house was semi-detached, and every child would have known.

‘The silly word definitely replaced, perhaps, distinctly, which was all over our writing and speech thirty years ago. Definitely has spread much farther. “Definitely vague” is not uncommon! But after all, it may be exact. Marlene undoubtedly was definitely lip-sticked (or stuck!). The definitely painted on the mainland, or aboard this ship, are definitely marked off from the other uglified women!

‘Many English people, of course, use and misuse the word quite absurdly. Quite! meaning “Just so; I agree; Exactly; I know, ” and so forth, is tiresome. But not all of us say it, though a small minority actually use it all the time. The plain fact is that quite is one of the unvarying marks of the American. It is everywhere in his speech, in the speech of every American. And he makes no variation: he has no alternative. He does not say a long time, a good while, sometime, a few weeks, or anything else of the kind. He says quite a while. He heard quite a speech, read quite an article, met quite a fellow. A tolerable distance is quite a ways. If he has a hard job on hand, it is quite a proposition. He goes to a place that is quite a town, chums up with quite a guy, even praises a first-rate woman as quite a girl. We in England do not speak so. We have all sorts of silly or feeble or inadequate expressions; but they vary from person to person, group to group, district to district.

‘For many years past I have been looking out for an individual comment from an American, man or woman, when a little, or even a considerable, trouble, accident, or whatever is mentioned. Do this in England, and you will of course hear some easy, careless, thoughtless remark: “I’m sorry to hear that; How rotten; How sickening; A pity; You were unlucky; How beastly” — and so on, anything. In America I have noted, perhaps twice or three times in five years, one variant, from a man: “Tough luck. ” But the fewest times only, year after year. The ritual phrase comes with certainty, always, everywhere, from every kind of person and whatever the occasion: “ Too bad!” I have the honor to say that this is (of course with the one exception of the American response which has got into the currency of the world, “O. K. ”) the most universal, peculiar, incessant bit of language ever established by any people. And, bad as we are in England, — illiterate, sloppy, slack, parrot-like, — we have so far not achieved anything at all like it.’


AGAIN THE MANGLED INFINITIVE. From a former editor of the Atlantic comes this note on a former President of the United States: —

Apropos of the split infinitive, I am tempted to quote what President Cleveland once said to me about it. He had been criticized for carelessness in this respect, and was defending himself. I said: ‘“To grope dimly” seems to me better than “To dimly grope.”’ ‘Yes,’ answered Cleveland, ‘but, Perry, it don’t always mean the same thing.’ — BLISS PERRY

To END A SENTENCE WITH. A dozen or more alert correspondents point out that an occasional sentence of mine ends on with or to; some of them charge a mere misdemeanor, others a felony. The principal of the West Intermediate School of Jackson, Michigan, asks more noncommittally: —

Does this mean that you condone and encourage the use of the preposition as a proper word with which to end a sentence? —O. H. EPPERSON

Yes and No. The one obvious consideration against the practice is that the terminal preposition does not commonly assist the emphasis we expect at the end of a wellformed sentence. But unnaturalness can be much worse than thwarted emphasis; it will generally thwart emphasis, anyway. John S. Kenyon of Hiram College, in a fine article in the Autumn 1938 American Scholar, cites examples of the ruinous sort of pedantic stiffness — e.g., Galsworthy’s ‘ turning to see at what she was looking ’ — and contrasts them devastatingly with such passages as Matthew 27.7 and Lowell’s magnificent ‘soil good to be born on, good to live on, good to die for and to be buried in.’ To these I add a sentence from Holmes: ‘The body has been called “the house we live in ”; the house is quite as much the body we live in.’ In fine, ‘A preposition is a poor word to end a sentence with’ is not at all a poor sentence. All of which, pray note, is a little different from saying that we should end a sentence with a preposition wherever we can.

BY AND LARGE. From Red Wing, Minnesota, comes a pertinent query: —

One construction that seems recently to have found favor is by and large as a substitute for ‘generally speaking’ or ‘in general.’ Is this combination of words elliptical or illogical? By what and large what? — ANDREW ESTREM

By the wind, but not large anything; this large being not adjective, but adverb. It is, I suspect, true that the expression is of late inexplicably fashionable. It is itself far from recent, being, of course, one of our vast number of nautical locutions from the era of sail. A vessel, when tacking or beating, sails by ( = beside, close to) the wind, or ‘full-and-by’; if able to make good her course without tacking, she sails ‘free’ or large (cf. at large), or with a free wind, as when the wind is abaft the beam.