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When One Kudo Will Do: The Grammatical 'Fluidity' of English

Margot Booth

In The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way, the journalist Bill Bryson provides an engaging historical perspective for understanding what is, in his view, "the most complicated, illogical, fascinating, and influential" language of them all. The following excerpt takes up the question of shifting rules on usage.

By Bill Bryson

Considerations of what makes for good English or bad English are to an uncomfortably large extent matters of prejudice and conditioning. Until the 18th century it was correct to say "you was" if you were referring to one person. It sounds odd today, but the logic is impeccable. Was is a singular verb and were a plural one. Why should you take a plural verb when the sense is clearly singular? ...

"I'm hurrying, are I not?" is hopelessly ungrammatical, but "I'm hurrying, aren't I?"--merely a contraction of the same words--is perfect English. Many is almost always a plural (as in "Many people were there"), but not when it is followed by a, as in "Many a man was there." There's no inherent reason why these things should be so. They are not defensible in terms of grammar. They are because they are.

Nothing illustrates the scope for prejudice in English better than the issue of the split infinitive. Some people feel ridiculously strongly about it. When the British Conservative politician Jock Bruce-Gardyne was economic secretary to the Treasury in the early 1980's, he returned unread any departmental correspondence containing a split infinitive. (It should perhaps be pointed out that a split infinitive is one in which an adverb comes between to and a verb, as in to quickly look.)

I can think of two very good rea4sons for not splitting an infinitive:

Because you feel that the rules of English ought to conform to the grammatical precepts of a language [Latin] that died a thousand years ago.

Because you wish to cling to a pointless affectation of usage that is without the support of any recognized authority of the last 200 years, even at the cost of composing sentences that are ambiguous, inelegant, and patently contorted. ...

Lacking [a formal, regulatory] academy as we do, we might expect dictionaries to take up the banner of defenders of the language, but in recent years they have increasingly shied away from the role. A perennial argument with dictionary makers is whether they should be prescriptive (that is, whether they should prescribe how language should be used) or descriptive (that is, merely describe how it is used without taking a position).

The most notorious example of the descriptive school was the 1961 Webster's Third New International Dictionary (popularly called Webster's Unabridged), whose editor, Philip Gove, believed that distinctions of usage were elitist and artificial. As a result, usages such as imply as a synonym for infer and flout being used in the sense of flaunt were included without comment.

The dictionary provoked further antagonism, particularly among members of the U.S. Trademark Association, by refusing to capitalize trademarked words. But what really excited outrage was its remarkable contention that ain't was "used orally in most parts of the United States by many cultivated speakers."

So disgusted was The New York Times with the new dictionary that it announced it would not use it but would continue with the 1934 edition, prompting the language authority Bergen Evans to write: "Anyone who solemnly announces in the year 1962 that he will be guided in matters of English usage by a dictionary published in 1934 is talking ignorant and pretentious nonsense," and he pointed out that the issue of the Times announcing the decision contained 19 words condemned by the Second International.

Since then, other dictionaries have been divided on the matter. The American Heritage Dictionary, first published in 1969, instituted a usage panel of distinguished commentators to rule on contentious points of usage, which are discussed, often at some length, in the text. But others have been more equivocal (or prudent or spineless depending on how you view it).

The revised Random House Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1987, accepts the looser meaning for most words, though often noting that the newer usage is frowned on "by many"--a curiously timid approach that at once acknowledges the existence of expert opinion and yet constantly places it at a distance. Among the looser meanings it accepts are disinterested to mean uninterested and infer to mean imply. It even accepts the exisel10ltence of kudo as a singular--prompting a reviewer from Time magazine to ask if one instance of pathos should now be a patho.

It's a fine issue. One of the undoubted virtues of English is that it is a fluid and democratic language in which meanings shift and change in response to the pressures of common usage rather than the dictates of committees. It is a natural process that has been going on for centuries. To interfere with that process is arguably both arrogant and futile, since clearly the weight of usage will push new meanings into currency no matter how many authorities hurl themselves into the path of change.

But at the same time, it seems to me, there is a case for resisting change--at least slapdash change. Even the most liberal descriptivist would accept that there must be some conventions of usage. We must agree to spell cat c-a-t and not elephant, and we must agree that by that word we mean a small furry quadruped that goes meow and sits comfortably on one's lap and not a large lumbering beast that grows tusks and is exceedingly difficult to house-break. In precisely the same way, clarity is generally better served if we agree to observe a distinction between imply and infer, forego and forgo, fortuitous and fortunate, uninterested and disinterested, and many others. As John Ciardi observed, resistance may in the end prove futile, but at least it tests the changes and makes them prove their worth.

Perhaps for our last words on the subject of usage we should turn to the last words of the venerable French grammarian Dominique Bonhours, who proved on his deathbed that a grammarian's work is never done when he turned to those gathered loyally around him and whispered: "I am about to--or I am going to--die; either expression is used."

From the book The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson. Copyright 1990 by Bill Bryson. Reprinted with permission of William Morrow & Company, Inc.

Vol. 10, Issue 2

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