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


‘Do you make these mistakes in English?’ the Sherwin Cody School of English inquires of Everyman and his wife in a familiar headline. The noun mistakes is there specific and concrete. If the question were ‘Do you make this sort of mistake?’ — not ‘this sort of a mistake,’ if you please, and above all not ‘ these sort of mistakes’ — then the noun, ordinarily concrete, would be abstract. Our remark on the frequently overlooked difference has brought forth a surprising amount of philosophy from readers who agree with one another about as harmoniously as you would expect of philosophers. One of the more suggestive comments, and certainly the most entertaining, runs: —

In explaining the difference between I want some sort of a handle for this box and I want some sort of employment for this boy your correspondent, a logical grammarian, seeks a distinction in unconscious logic. Read the two sentences aloud; notice that they make the same tune. Let me suggest that rhythm determines our choice of words more than logic, that sound is more important than sense, that language is greater than grammar. English speech is predominantly anapæstic, and popular speech gently tends toward such a rhythm. (Bishop’s Law No. 1.) Language is only incidentally used for expressing communications exactly; it is chiefly a kind of bird song, bringing pleasure to the utterer, and consisting mainly in repetitious, idiotic sound. The grammarians may perfect their own analytical systems, but their rules will never account for the way people talk. (Bishop’s Law No. 2.) — MORRIS BISHOP, Ithaca, New York

What are we going to do with this modernist manifesto? The observation is exact. Some sort of a handle and some sort of employment are indeed rhythmically identical. To show that their rhythmical likeness is not the explanation of their grammatical unlikeness would be a tough assignment — especially when the contrary is argued with the resources of a professor of the Romance languages combined with those of a favorite contributor to the New Yorker and historian of the variegated imbecilities of Homo sapiens. Shall we simply tell Mr. Bishop that he has given deliberate utterance to a piece of udmirable fine fooling and that no one knows it better than he? But the assertion of a talent for mind reading is not an answer. Shall we question Bishop’s Law No. 1 by pointing out that those spontaneous and simple cries in which the impulses of speech are nearest those of bird song will assay hardly an anapaest to a carload? (All aboard! Way below! There she blows! Rah, rah, rah! Kill him! Look out! Never again! Hold ‘em, Yale! Drop it! Not on your life! Damn!) But that would shed no light on the question whether English ‘gently tends’ toward the anapæst; whether the speech of our day is more nearly anapæstic than that of Milton’s day, Franklin’s, Mark Twain’s.

For my part, I choose simply to maintain that Mr. Bishop is leaving out, for his insidious purposes, an indispensable principle of relativity without which all discussion of language remains academic. For instance: I call his analysis ‘entertaining.’ What I tacitly mean is that it entertains me, or that I could count, on it to entertain many and various persons. I know, of course, some to whom it might be pure gibberish; but these do not deter me from using the epithet with a good conscience. There is this difficulty, this dualism, in pretty much all our use of language, and it makes a good deal of language potentially ambiguous and sometimes flagrantly false. You cannot call something exciting without raising implicitly the question who is excited by it. A seaman will report, in good faith, a calm day, but the report strikes a seasick passenger as a mere addition of insult to injury. Most of the facts of language are relative, for the simple reason that its users are different persons.

Language is a kind of bird song: all right. But is it ‘chiefly’ a kind of bird song? That depends upon who is doing the estimating. Is it, for instance, chiefly a kind of bird song to Mr. Bishop? (You will have noticed that, himself impervious to the anapæstic urge, he does not write ‘a kind of a bird song.’) Rhythm more than logic may determine the choice of words — for some choosers; but it seems to me that logic has played a fairly substantial part in choosing the words in which Mr. Bishop says so. Has he let sound be more important than sense to him, or used language ‘only incidentally’ for exact communication? I dare say his words brought pleasure to the utterer, as they did to me; but is that the sole or the principal thing they have done? Does a man who seriously says ‘I want some sort of employment for this boy’ use language consisting ‘mainly’ in repetitious, idiotic sound? I trow not.

If we are going to lay down sweeping generalizations about what language ‘is,’ we are going to be victims as well as beneficiaries of our generalizing. Plenty of us some poets, more politicians, still more who just like to hear themselves talk— do indeed use speech as if sound were more important than sense. Others, the ones with good minds and tone-deaf ears, use it as if logic were all. At least a few strive for the harmony of sound and sense and are unsatisfied without the cadence that placates the ear while what is said informs the mind. (Among these I firmly include Mr. Bishop, on the strength of all the evidence he has himself supplied.) Language ‘is’ the medium of all three classes. It is incantation; it is communication; and it is harmonious adjustment.

But note this: it is only language the balanced, flexible, relatively precise instrument of communication that can be reasoned about with much profit, or taught, or learned by practice, or lucidly criticized.


STORIES THAT HAS. The institution named at the beginning of the paragraphs above has drastically revised its advertisement offering to cure us, in fifteen minutes a day, of colorless diction and stunted careers. Whether it was prompted lay some printed comments on the quality of its own diction in the former advertisement, there is no knowing. The revision is a vast improvement. Nevertheless, it impenitently describes the institution’s prospectus as ‘one of the most interesting stories about education in English that ever has been written.’

SUBMIT. IS an order properly submitted? The membership secretary of The Literary Guild of America, Inc., says Yes, in a clipping sent me by Mrs. Channing Pollock:

If you desire either one of these selections, you may submit your order either to us or to Bloomingdalc’s and it will be given immediate attention.

Mrs. Pollock says No: —

I submit that submitting an order is out of order. . . . When we get into the impending war I hope no American general will submit his commands what?

Mv correspondent might, I think, be said to have submitted the clipping to this department, but its own context flouts the Websterian definition that comes the nearest — ‘to leave or commit to the discretion or judgment of another or others.’