Grammar Is Obsolete

An author and editor who believes that English should be accurate , WILSON FOLLETT here takes issue with Bergen Erans and his sister, Cornelia, for what he regards as their tolerance of sloppy Ameriean usage. Mr. Follett is now at work on a comprehensire and systematic book on grammatical usage.

LINGUISTIC scholarship, once an encouragement to the most exacting definitions and standards of workmanship, has for some time been dedicating itself to the abolition of standards; and the new rhetoric evolved under its auspices is an organized assumption that language good enough for anybody is good enough for everybody. We have come into a time when the ideals preached and, sometimes, practiced by exalted authority can only take shape in uses of English that arc at best tolerable and at worst revolting. Such official pressure as is now put on the young learner is no longer in the direction of forcing him to ask himself whether his way of saying something could have been made better at a bearable cost– as, in a language so rich and various as ours, it generally could have. Everything now taught him concentrates on the lowly question, will it do at a pinch?

For the handiest possible conspectus of what the new ideal is, one can do no better than to glance at a recent comprehensive manual of rhetorical practice. A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage. by Bergen Evans and Cornelia Evans, comes from authors of prestige and influence, one of them a university professor of English and conductor of a radio and television program devoted to questions of spoken and written usage, the other a writing consultant in the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare and a prize-winning novelist. The reason for turning to this 570-page, 600,000word volume is not that its publisher proclaims it to be “up-to-date, complete, authoritative” — an assertion of three attributes inherently unattainable by any such work compiled by mortals — but rather that it is declared with strict accuracy to be “based on modern linguistic scholarship.” It is essentially a popularization of findings about modern English arrived at and promulgated by contemporary philologists, semanticists, virtuosos of historical and descriptive (as opposed to prescriptive) grammar and morphophonetics, and learnedly implacable assailants of the discarded idea that to speak or write well means hard work, the taking of sometimes painful thought, the constant rejection of laborand thought-saving alternatives, and the practice of canons that are mastered only by arduous self-cultivation and discipline.

The Evanses manage to convey, along with many shrewd discriminations and salutary warnings often very engagingly phrased, an overall impression that acceptable usages are arrived at by a process about as automatic as breathing; that to torment oneself with questions of better and not so good is to be a seeker after gratuitous trouble and. what is worse, a purist; and that the way to attain effective expression is to keep our ears open, bank on our natural and inescapable linguistic inheritance, and cultivate an English that will make us indistinguishable from the ostensibly educated surrounding majority. Let us see where anyone will come out if he accepts and applies the combination of what these authors recommend, what they defend or condone, and what they do themselves. He will come out speaking and writing an American English faithfully represented by the scattering that follows:

“Ask whoever you see.” “He had as much or more trouble than I did.” “He works faster than me”; “he is taller than me.” “More unique.” “Different than.” “The reason is because. . . .” “I can’t imagine it being him.” “Let‘s you and I”; “let’s you and me.” “Bob as well as frank were there.” “Neither D. nor A. are at home”; “neither he nor I are timid”; “either of them are enough to drive a man to distraction”; “neither of them had their tickets”; “I do not think either of them are at home”; “each carried their own pack”; “each of the men were willing to contribute.” “Every member brings their own lunch”; “either the boy or the girl left their book.” “I cannot help but think.” “Nobody was killed, were they?” “Less than three.” “If one loses his temper.” “We did not find a one.” “The sheriff with all his men were at the door.” “Not one of them were listening.” “Some grammarians claim that this is not permissible.” “He allowed that we were right.” “Refer back to.” “Back of (behind). “Between each house”; “between every pause.” “He blamed it on me.” “I haven’t but a minute to spare.” “I don’t doubt but that you are surprised.” “Who did you see?” “Who are you looking for?” “Children whom we know are hungry.” “Everyplace”; “anyplace”; “someplace”; “someway”; “noplace”; “I have looked everyplace.” “It is not I who is angry.” “These kind of men are dangerous.” “You don‘t know Nellie like I do.” “It is you who will be blamed for it, not them.” “That’s her at the door now.” “A minimum of sufficiency.”“We most always go shopping on Saturday.” “Very amused.” “Overly cautious.” “Datas”; “phenomenas”; “much data”; “very little data”; “the data is now in.” “I asked him what was he doing.” “The rationale for his attack on the President.” “As regards.” “Somebody left their umbrella.” “I will get one someway.” “There will only be him left.” “Subsequent to his release from the Air Force he got a job with a commercial air line.” “A continuous use [of a word in a specified way] is vulgar.” “He went no further than Philadelphia.” “Neither of these reasons justify the use of the present tense.” “He failed, due to carelessness.”

This little anthology could be several times multiplied from the same source; thus much will do to imply a general pattern. Some of the specimens are patently better, or less bad, than others. Say of the whole, if you wish: “Some might be worse.” There is no point in using a microscope on the gradations or on the merits of the arguments used to defend this locution or that. It is enough if we perceive — as we cannot very well escape doing — that collectively they define a stratum of diction that invites defense and seems to require it, one that it is now fashionable to defend with all the resources of specialized learning. No one could possibly contemplate any such handful and then declare its components above challenge and in no need of condoning; no one could associate them with an unremitting effort to discover and to utilize the best that our common language is capable of. A collection of the same size could hardly vary much from this one if it deliberately set out to specialize in the marginal, the dubious, the suspect. What it seems to represent is the pattern of habits deliberately adopted by the educated when they set out to show that they are no better than anyone else, if as good. It goes to show the lengths to which we can carry conformism and the terror of being noticeable in a society that is (as Bierce said of the republic long before H. L. Mencken was heard of) daft with democracy and sick with sin.

If anyone wanted to execute a piece of writing that would be from beginning to end the densest possible concentration of what the elder rhetoricians classified as solecisms, he could hardly do better than to attune his prose to the dicta laid down in A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage. The book is an astute, artful, and tireless harvesting of whatever in American speech is barely tolerable to those who do not make a virtue of pushing either tolerance or intolerance to pathological extremes. And it is a translation into practical advice of what the most erudite philologists and lexicographers have for some time been telling us about the sources of health and vitality in our language. The great nuclear principle seems to be that we should speak and write not as well as we can learn how, but ignobly enough to escape notice.

Now, a resort to this kind of first aid may result in some tactical advantage to the purveyor of insurance or real estate, the chairman of a fundraising campaign, the soapbox orator, the candidate for minor office. Even that advantage can be doubted: there seems to be a fairly powerful undertow of envious popular respect for the man who uses language with easy distinction, provided that he does it in quiet assurance with no air of showing off or of spitting on his hearers to see if they can swim, as the rude old Yankee folk saying has it. An instance is the standing that cex-Governor Adlai Stevenson seems to have with all classes of his fellow countrymen, whether they applaud his political opinions or not. But whatever the practical momentary advantages of slovenly diction. what is its long-range bearing on education, on the language itself, on its literature? Will, say, two or three consecutive generations of calculated effort to speak and write without excellence enhance the prospect of our producing an Irving, a Hawthorne, a Melville, a Henry James, a Howells, a Sarah Orne Jewett, a Willa Cather? Or will it tend to blight that prospect? Did the virtue of English prose, from Sir Thomas Browne and the King James translators to Bernard Shaw, come out of the acceptance of language on the permissive or lowest-common-denominator basis — out of a preoccupation with what was tolerable, what could barely be endured in default of better?

Is it not one of the shames of modern scholarship that it has so little to say for what is really good, what is best, and so much to say for what is merely allowable or defensible? Scholarship is trying, of course, to discount the factor of taste as nonscientific; but is it scientific to discount it? Taste is the faculty of criticism, the faculty of intelligent choice; and to it belongs the last word about any given use of language. After all, the argument from usage carries only a permissive force, not a mandatory one. Even if it were possible to prove an overwhelming preponderance for “He failed, due to carelessness” and “You don‘t know Nellie like I do,” the proof could mean only that one may use these expressions without being condemned. There would be nothing to say that anyone has to use them, and all of us would still have the freedom of “His failure was due to carelessness” or “Carelessness caused him to fail” and “You don’t know Nellie as I do” or “the way I do,” which will never raise any problems or any eyebrows.

Nobody is under compulsion to like a construction just because it exists or to use it if he does not like it. This is a principle that applies equally to present and to past usages. We have the whole range of linguistic resources at our disposal; and there is no virtue in flirting with ways of expression that we think dubious or inferior when there are alternative ways — as there always are — to which no exception can be taken. The formation of any style, even a bad one, is an affair of constant acceptances and rejections; and everyone has to lean on his own taste for acceptance of the better and rejection of the worse.

THE discussion of usage was probably never shrouded in more fog than it is now. Those who want to fling wide the gates to all manner of laxity maintain firmly that change is the great inescapable law, that the only criterion is what people are doing with language now, and they can find no words severe enough for resistance to change, especially when resistance takes the form of quoting classic sources; but if they can unearth in Chaucer or Wycliffe or Donne or Hazlitt some parallel to whatever change is being resisted, they cite it as if it settled the matter forever. Whether the use cited was typical or exceptional in that author is a question not raised; it is enough that the passage exists. The Evanses give us a list of twenty authors, Shakespeare to Maugham — a list as easily extended back to Chaucer — who use like as a conjunction, but there is no attempt to show that any one of them regularly or even frequently used it so. A dictionary that illustrates a secondary meaning with a quotation may, for all we can tell, be using the only known occurrence of the word in that sense.

The radical, the innovator, the grammatical iconoclast and libertine is ready to beat down all opposition as tradition-bound and ridiculously conservative, but he is equally ready to demonstrate that whatever is objected to has been English for four or five hundred years. Both forms of argument are supposed to be unanswerably crushing. If some locution now current defies a past consensus, so much the worse for the past; but at the same time any locution ever written by a good writer is ipso facto attack-proof, and if a precedent can be adduced for anything, however shabby, the case is closed.

Actually not everything ever written by a good writer, or even by quite a number of good writers, is good, any more than everything ever written by a bad writer is bad. Every good writer has committed himself at one time or another to practices without which he would have been a better writer. It is our privilege to pick and choose, alike from the superior and the inferior, alike from the past and the present. For the winnowing of the past we have the guidance of perspective in addition to taste; for the present, taste alone has to suffice. For taste there is no substitute, nor is there any excuse for not using as much of it as we have. The unexpressed excuse that underlies most refusals to use it is the delusive feeling that every demolition of a barrier, old or new, is a freeing of the language from needless restraints and a further emancipation of its users.

What is overlooked is that language and its users grow by restraints, too. Especially in a time when looseness of many kinds is a dominant fashion, it may be salutary to cultivate a tightness and exactitude not customarily demanded. Linguistic resources are expanded not only by the seizing of new liberties as fast as they become available but also by the rejection of liberties that may be only license. A writer is not alone what he writes; he is likewise everything that he will not write because he finds it not good enough, and his power may be as much a function of his renunciations as of his self-indulgences. The libertarians will pity him as self-deprived and call his austerity a crotchet, but he and we are the gainers by his discriminations, and the language may be the loser by the indiscrimination of the loose constructionist.

In no domain is there a clearer illustration of the power of negative choice than in the domain of diction. Good writing has always been marked, and is marked today, by selection of words for their central and not their peripheral meanings. A word, particularly an abstract word, has a core of meaning from which it gradually spreads over associated meanings, perhaps in several directions, until it overlaps words that have likewise spread out from entirely different, possibly remote centers.

The liberalistic view now regnant ranks all such extensions as improvements of language, all as equally good. But the fine writer or speaker is habitually aiming at bull‘s-eyes, not at general target areas, and he does not care for the idea of shelling the woods with language. His dictionary gives apparent as one synonym of evident, and vice versa, but he still finds an important kind of in - tegrity in applying apparent to the thing that seems to be so whether it is or not and in saving evident for that which both seems to be and is so. Infer once meant exactly what imply means now — it is generally, perhaps always, so used in the seventeenth-century plays of John Ford — but the two words have developed a clear differentiation whereby imply goes with the transmitting end and infer with the receiving end of the same process of deduction; smoke implies fire, but when you smell smoke you infer fire. It is a clear loss, not a gain, when we ignore the differentiation in such sentences as these from the best-selling murder story of the decade: “The defense is trying to infer that the prosecution is trying to conceal something.”

“And surely you do not mean to infer that it would be an unjust verdict if X. were acquitted on the ground of temporary insanity?” Infer is being so chronically abused by many who should know better that lexicography no longer quite sees what to do with it, but a decent writer sees, and he is well aware that the widespread confusion makes the English vocabulary not richer, but poorer. True, “language grows,” as Greenough and Kittredge said in 1901, “by the felicitous misapplication of words”; but there is no profit to be had out of misapplication per se, without the felicity — a reservation that brings us straight back to the necessity of taste.

The obvious and growing indifference of many publishing houses to hundreds or thousands of such distinctions as those illustrated cannot be called one of the more gladdening signs of the times. No practicing editor of any great competence ever sees a book manuscript for which he could not do appreciable favors if he had a free hand and time, and ninety-nine of any hundred published books could have profited by good offices that they never received. But these phenomena, depressing as they are, seem not quite so shocking as the latter-day hospitality of the very learned to every popular usage that volunteers to make the language more fuzzy, inarticulated, and fumbling.

What steadily preoccupies everyone fit to be called a writer is the possibility of improving everything in his work that is improvable. In no other way can he contribute his much or his little to the effectiveness of language as an instrument of precision combined with power. The linguistic scholarship that impedes and discourages where it might help him is operating beneath its privilege, not to say beneath its obligation. Let those who choose define usage as what a swarm of folk say or write by reason of laziness, shiftlessness, or ignorance; the tenable definition is still what the judicious do as a result of all that they can muster of conscious discrimination. It is time we had a philosophy of usage grounded in the steadfast conviction that the best, whether or not we have it in us to attain it, is not too good to be aspired to.