Re: [NTLK] The "Greengrocers' Apostrophe" [OT]

From: Lord Groundhog <>
Date: Tue Sep 04 2007 - 08:38:32 EDT

~~~ On 2007/09/04 01:23, Alan Balas at wrote ~~~

> Just my two cents on this thread...
> With all due respect, the only languages that adhere to grammar books are
> dead languages. "Living" languages are, of course, constantly evolving. For
> example, take the Great Vowel Shift which occurred in English. Within about
> a fifty-year span (two-and-a half generations), the vowel sounds in English
> "shifted". Where a grandparent might say "ban" (pronounced like "bahn"), a
> grandchild would say "bone". This seems unthinkable, but it's true.
> Another example: in the 1700's, some people felt that English was becoming
> "degenerate". To curb this, a series of non-Germanic, "Latinized" words were
> introduced into the language. Others took the opposite route, introducing
> Germanic alternatives. "Ventosity" was supposed to replace "[farting]" (I
> know, wrong form). It didn't. The Germanic "not-to-be-thought-uponable" was
> supposed to replace "inconceivable" (thankfully, it didn't).
> I used to pay more attention to the grammar books until I took a "History of
> the English Language" course in college. I'll even venture that in fifty
> years, the conditional mood ("If I were ..., I would...") will be a relic,
> replaced by "If I was..., I would..." in the grammar books.
> - Alan


Of course you're right. The only language that doesn't change is a dead
one. Sometimes. What you say here and in your second e-mail (with the
hilarious example of Torpenhow Hill -- it's common here as an historical
illustration too) is related to the issue I glossed over in an early post
about: the controversy over "prescriptive" vs "descriptive" grammars.

There are a number of other similar controversies, where it's easy to lose
sight of the need for balancing prescription with description. Maybe being
unbalanced is just a human tendency? When I was studying (all too briefly)
palaeography and the development of writing, there were similar problems
over how letter forms and alphabets should be standardized in some
languages. There were even times when some nobles had scribes from more
than one "school" of scribes, because writing had diversified sufficiently
that not all scribes could read one another's work, even though it was
"standard" within what I call their own clique of scribes. One of
Charlemagne's contributions to modern Europe (and all of us; the Newt is the
fruit!) was to insist on a standard hand, now sometimes called "foundation
hand", for scribes throughout his domain. The main remnant now of the
pre-Carlovingian diversity is within the circles of modern calligraphers,
where there is a creative tension between maintaining legibility in a piece
by keeping the standard forms (more or less) and achieving abstract
expression and movement by using freer, more idiosyncratic and
contextualized forms.

But I digress. As I see it, the best reasons for not excluding the
descriptive elements of grammar include avoiding crushing the life out of a
language by inhibiting its growth, its adaptability in a constantly changing
culture, and its freshness of expression. OTOH, to me the best reasons for
preserving the prescriptive elements of grammar are to avoid losing the
sublety and richness and precision already present in "standard" grammar
(thereby keeping the ability to say *exactly* what one means in a form that
is crystal-clear to any language-competent hearer), and conversely, the
provision of precise ways to minimize misunderstanding or ambiguity. You
unfortunately may be right that we will lose the conditional (may I die
before that happens!), but think carefully about what that will mean for
clarity and unambiguity. As when we lost the English subjunctive, losing
the conditional leaves us with just diminished ability to draw fine
distinctions of meaning.

In my reckoning, the loss of emphasis upon descriptive grammar leads us
ultimately to having to work harder to express ourselves with vividness and
freshness. In contrast, the loss of strong prescriptive grammar can lead us
ultimately to the Humpty-Dumpty theory of language and with it,

I prefer balance, but when I'm forced into imbalance I choose to lean
towards prescriptiveness and just accept that I must work that little bit
harder. Reading English (or any language) written by those who have
mastered it, no matter what their subject, is a delight of sharpness,
precision, and dazzling vigour. Meanwhile, freshness of expression doesn't
have to suffer. It's like watching a master athlete at his peak, or
listening to a virtuoso musician giving the performance of his life.
Reading such masters of language gives me (and us all?) something to which
to aspire.

BTW, this same kind of discussion could be held concerning the tendency to
do away with words, apparently because they're "fussy", "high-brow" or
whatever. There are many words that are synonyms only in an approximate
sense, and the reasons for choosing one and not another of them mustn't be
ignored simply because remembering one word is easier than remembering three
or four along with *exactly* what they mean, or because we can't be bothered
to note that one word may inject an unintended or unwanted meaning that
another does not. To choose a really simple example that seems already to
have been conceded by many, how much do we really gain by using "can" to
replace "may"? And is what we gain worth what we lose? IMO, "nothing", and
"no", but as we move towards emphasizing descriptive grammar over
prescriptive grammar, everyone is left to choose for themselves. Meanwhile,
we seem to gain "ease" (a gain I would dispute) at the cost of clarity (a
loss I regret).

And the funny thing is, more and more people who choose to dispense with the
prescriptive rigours of grammar, while seeming to make language "free", end
up becoming prescriptive about their rejection of prescriptive grammar;
hence their use of the term "grammar-nazi". It gets just a little tiresome
when someone who chooses to treat English like a blunt instrument reacts to
someone who chooses to treat English like a scalpel by saying, "Ooooh! Get
you!" (I always refrain from saying, "Get me what? I don't want anything
now, thanks." But it's hard. ;) ) I think of it as the tyranny of

Another way I like to think of this controversy is that the balance is
ultimately one of self-expression vs communication. Newborns are
*brilliant* at the former (as any parent knows at 2 a.m.), and lousy at the
latter ("NOW why is he crying?"). Parents have to work hard to interpret
their self-expression. Good ones work even harder at teaching their
offspring communication.

For the record, I don't see grammars as tramlines imprisoning language, but
as hedges on a wide road, guiding and guarding it.

~~~ ~~~ ~~~

łAny sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from a Newton.˛
            -- What Arthur C. Clarke meant to say
(With thanks to Chod Lang)

~~~ ~~~ ~~~
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Received on Tue Sep 4 08:40:11 2007

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