The Descent of English

Once in a while, against my better judgement, I get upset by the mis-use of English—not just in conversation, where perfection is rarely expected or appropriate, but in carefully scripted presentations, news copy, narrations and voice-overs, articles, books, etc.

I know it’s a lost cause, and I’m well aware that concern over the deterioration of the mother tongue is an eternal worry of pedantic folks and has probably existed since the first hominid grunt was uttered with the “wrong” intonation. Nevertheless, there are a few mistakes that consistently bug me:

Singular nouns taking plural verbs  (If ever there were a lost cause.)

In the last decade, it appears that a new rule of grammar has emerged concerning subject-object agreement. We used to think that the subject of a sentence had to match, in number, the verb form of that sentence. We’d say, “Twelve apples are too many,” or “One apple is quite enough.” Simple.

Admittedly, some confusion arises when we use singular nouns that denote multiplicity, such as “dozen.” Which is correct:

A dozen apples are too many.
A dozen apples is too many.

Arguably, since “apples” is plural, “A dozen apples is…” sounds wrong, if you stop there.

If we omit “apples,” it’s harder to complain about “A dozen is too many.”

So now we have inconsistency (the hobgoblin):

1. A dozen apples are too many.
2. One apple is quite enough.
3. A dozen is still too many.

The “rule” for example #1, if it can be approximated very simply, is “If more than one thing is mentioned, then it’s a plural verb.” Sadly, this is inadequate, because it reflects a misunderstanding of the structure of the sentence in question. Even more sadly, this over-simplification leads not only to example #1, which is wrong but inconsequential, but also to a much bigger mess when other, superficially similar sentences are formed:

4. The trouble with big cars are that they use too much gas.
5. The problem with size are cost, space, weight, and cooling.

In #4, clearly the subject is “the trouble” and it takes “is” for the verb. But “cars” is perilously close to the verb, and “cars is” does indeed sound wrong-ish. Aren’t we following the approximate rule stated above—more than one thing is (are?) mentioned, so the verb is plural?

In #5, several things follow the verb, so the verb (“to be”) should agree, yes? Well, no, since the subject controls the verb, and it started out (inopportunely) in the singular. In more complex examples of this, it often seems the author got started with a singular and then elaborated into plurals, and hadn’t the time to go back.

But let’s not blame all clunky writing on lack of time. Perhaps misunderstandings like this arise from never really learning enough about how language works, or simply from insufficient exposure to well-written material. If those who make mistakes like example #1 were interested (and I see no reason why they would be), they might notice that “a dozen apples” is a smooth contraction of the implied “a dozen of apples,” and they might conclude that “dozen” does not modify “apples” and is unambiguously the subject.

So the casual quasi-rule about “plurals near the verb make the verb plural” is too superficial to be of much use, and serves us badly. When a journalist dashes off another script for the talking head, she doesn’t spend much time parsing sentences. She sees “big cars is” and fixes it, or her copy editor fixes it, and nobody thinks much about the sentence as a sentence.

The second (and final, for today) mistake that finds its way under my fingernails is:

Subjective / Objective case of personal pronouns

Somehow, school teachers (with ample assistance from parents) have managed to confuse every English-speaking person about the (extraordinarily simple) use of personal pronouns. These little bee-stings are enormously popular:

Him and me went to the movies.
Me and Jane are in love.
Bill gave Jane and I the job.
Hi! It’s me!

I can sympathize with what’s become a ubiquitous colloquialism (“It’s me”), but “Him and me went…”? The same speaker would never say, “Me went to the movies” or “Bill gave I the job.” So what’s the problem here?

The problem is, I believe, evidence of the confusion sown by having heard that “sometimes it’s ‘he and I’ and sometimes ‘him and me’ and people usually get it wrong.” This leads to people trying too hard, so they force awkward phrases into their words, hoping that the awkwardness of formal English is a side-effect of correctness.

Grammar in general

To the horror of nearly all of us, grammar still tends to be taught as “the rules.” My own book of that name notwithstanding, grammar is not rules. The formal definition of how English is used (today, for the time being) takes hundreds of pages of specialized terminology, and this is candy for the grammarian and scholar but obviously of no use to the common writer or speaker of English.

In the context of writing and speaking, grammar is the art of doing it well.

Put another way, grammar is a summary of how English is used by those who use it best. It’s an empirical thing, grammar, an attempt to define in practical terms what has proven to make English most effective.

What’s the best way to learn grammar? The same as the best way to learn to speak—by immersion. If you want to learn French, the best way is to go live among French people and absorb the sound and feel of the language as a whole, not as a book of rules to remember with a vocabulary list.

So the best way to learn excellence in writing or speaking is to associate with people who are really good at it. If public speaking is important in your life, then listen to TED talks or attend Toastmasters. If you aspire to clear effective writing, then read great writers in your field. As language skills improve, the “rules” of grammar gradually make sense, but they are reflections of good writing, not the means of good writing.

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