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


SHE taught, us to use may for permission and can for ability. (‘May I smoke?’ ‘Can you swim?’) When she got through with us we made firm distinctions between infer and imply, admission and admittance, uninterested and disinterested, adopted and adoptive, recreation and re-creation. She convinced us that less properly applies to quantity, and that when we mean a smaller number we should use fewer. She made us incapable of saying ‘the oldest of the two,’ ‘All of us looked at each other,’ ‘One must do his best,’ ‘different than,’ ‘no doubt, but what,’ ‘I can’t locate this reference,’ and ‘between the three of them.’ At ‘The reason is because’ and ‘one of the strangest discoveries that was ever announced’ she succeeded in making us shudder delicately with her. She instructed us with rigor in the position of the negative until we could be depended upon to notice the difference between ‘All of us are not so wise as he’ and ‘Not all of us are as wise as he.’ A strict constructionist, a parser, a believer in rules and drill and the importance of reliable habits, she grounded us thoroughly in the distinctions that she believed to be those of correct and incorrect, right and wrong. And what has been her eventual public reward for these efforts? Why, she is to-day a byword and a hissing, a synonym for narrow pedanticism based on half-knowledge or sheer ignorance. All the scientific liberalism that is now brought to bear on the study of the language denounces her with one voice as an exponent of arbitrarily invented rules, as the purveyor of Latin grammar unnaturally applied to English, as the agent of an absurd organized attempt to fetter and strait-jacket our speech.

I realize that the schoolmarm, in the day when the words ‘grammar school’ were no misnomer, was a little addicted to erecting her pet aversions into linguistic laws. Nevertheless, I am willing to incur whatever odium may be attached to the opinion that she did incomparably more good than harm. The harm was both trivial and transient, whereas the good, being fundamental, was enduring. What is more, her very mistakes and exaggerations conferred benefits more important than any damage that ever resulted from them.

She looked askance, say, at the sentence ending with a preposition. A little reading and observation showed us, quite as soon as we could profit by the knowledge, that no consensus supported her in this. But meanwhile her nonexistent statute had served us as the opening wedge of a really important truth: to wit, that the end of a sentence is a position of natural emphasis and the place for a bigger load of meaning than the preposition will generally bear. Thus her teaching, even where it most lacked scholarly breadth and accuracy, did tend toward discrimination and the habit of self-criticism. If she insisted on a half-truth here and a pedantic prejudice there, these, like the wooden moulds of a construction job, were certain to be knocked down in the end. What stood was the reënforced concrete of the idea that language finely used has something to do with teachable standards of workmanship.

Of language as a spontaneous growth, a phenomenon to be studied objectively, a palimpsest of the quaint, chaotic, always amusing human mind, she was not so aware as her successors are expected to be. But her sharp categories of right and wrong accomplished one result not too commonly produced under our more philosophical dogma that whatever is is right. She fought illiteracy and actually made headway against it, where we just broad-mindedly understand it. The pupils who learned the Facts of Pronouns from her are interested to this day in the tangible means of speaking and writing better. Are we sure that they would be as keenly or as intelligently interested if she had taught them the fallibility of the grammatical approach and a few fascinating curiosities of folk etymology?


SINCE. From a professional translator — ‘The proper use of language is what I live on,’ he remarks incidentally — arrives a comment to which I can add nothing: —

Some day you may want to print a note on the tense that goes with since. I should have thought the wrong use a mere illiterate blunder, but yesterday I came on three examples in the morning’s New York Times, so I decided to write to the Atlantic. My guess is that such mistakes as ‘Since 1920 he was town dogcatcher at Dummerston’ are German-Judaisms, hence perhaps most prevalent in New York. Anyway, they are an assault on delicate ears that I hope you will repel.
— BARROWS MUSSEY, Morristown, New Jersey

WHOMEVER. Also from the Times (Sunday magazine section of April 23, p. 7) is a sentence that will be clipped for me by at least half a dozen readers before this note of it is print: —

A chain smoker, he rarely has a cigarette of his own, and he is constantly asking for one from whomever happens to be with him.

What a lively American invention, by the way, is the phrase chain smoker!

LAYS. ‘The shell section in horsehide is found only in that part that lays over the horse’s hips,’ begins a clipping from a correspondent who says: —

The enclosed paragraph was clipped from a full-page advertisement in the April number of the Country Gentleman, a leading farm publication. Under the State of the Language what is the standing of the word lays?
— CHARLES H. WHITE, Cortland, New York

It is without standing, I should say. But anyone who thinks that lay and lie are always easily extricable by the fairly literate should try to reach finality about the popular phrase to lay for. It, among other oddities, is the subject of a neat note on pp. 128-131 of We Who Speak English, by C. A. Lloyd.

LIKE, AS. Earlier this month I clipped, from a magazine article by Mr. Philip Guedalla, this astounding sentence: ‘For those were the days when men behaved like they are behaving now in Central Europe.’ My mail brings me this very sentence, together with one from the advertisement of a perfume: ‘The sky is deep blue . . . like her eyes should be,’ from a correspondent who implores: —

Won’t you please do something about the barbarous and growing use of like for as? [I wish I could.] I realize that the English have sanctioned the misuse of like for a long time, but I’m sure you will agree that they are hurting the language, rather than helping it, by allowing this error to pass unchallenged.
— BERNICE KENYON, Bailey’s Bay, Bermuda

The hope for the preservation of the respectable usage, if there is any, is in the number of persons who writhe at every breach of it. It is an encouragingly vast number if this department’s correspondence is any clue; but can a minority, however vast, maintain the dikes?