Don’t get caught with your participle dangling in the wind

At the risk of pathetic fatalism I’m going to come clean right at the beginning that I’m not sure if it’s possible to write something interesting about grammar, so at this point I apologize. However, you’re not exactly going to be spared either. My condolences…

It’s hard to say exactly where language is headed these days ( English, if you really want me to betray my inherent cultural bias. But I figure every language’s pundits furrow their brows at this bugaboo. But I digress…). Contrary to what my tyrannical grade eight english teacher(Gr. E. T.) would have you believe, grammar is not absolutely set in stone.

As you’d probably quickly gather from watching MuchMusic, YTV, or any youth-oiented television channel, there are a whole bunch of words in play which I’m sure would give my Gr. E. T. an aneurysm. “Hollah” does not mean “call me” to him, but then again, he probably uses phrases like “let’s shag ass” when he was ready to go and refers to a girl in a skirt as having great “gams.” My point is, popular language changes over time.

So does formal language. For instance, thou was at one point the English equivalent of the French tu and you of formal vous. But as you’ll notice no one except some hung-up lovesick English major really uses thou, and even then he only uses it to try and score points with some foolish young frosh woman who swoons at romantic poetry ( if there are any left). Besides, I’m sure the up lovesick English major doesn’t use thou when he’s later telling his fellow up lovesick English majors at the bar later how he struck-out.

The constant evolution of the way we speak and write is a reality. If it didn’t we’d sound like this: Us is riht micel __ææt we rodera weard, wereda wuldorcining, wordum herigen, modum lufien! ( It’s Old English, the first verse of Genesis, if you really want know.) But then again, in 1000 years the way we write and talk now will be regarded with similar incomprehensive looks and scratching of heads. It’s a long way from Old English to what we have now, yet we see this process everyday.

A Brief Interpolative Anecdote to Help My Point

One day I was passed by by some youths (actually they were 19-year-olds) and overheard this conversation:
Youth 1: Yo! You know Steve?
Youth 2: Yo! Yo! Yo! I know Steve! Yo! He’s mad cool!

I could picture the vein in my Gr. E.T.’s head throbbing. However, it seemed to me that though there was only an age difference of four years, I almost found them incomprehensible (not that different, mind you. I’m with it. I say ‘yo’ and ‘word,’ but I can’t help but inculcate my usage of them with a certain amount of un-hip irony and self-consciousness).

All this points to some important questions: Who determines what is appropriate language? What are the criteria involved? It’s hard to say.

A lot of what passes for canon law in language usage is based upon arbitrary tradition. For instance, there is no real logical metaphysical reason why we use felt instead of feeled, or that the plural of goose is geese, but the plural of moose isn’t. It’s the lingual equivalent of cultural norms, like “guys wear pants and not skirts.” Sure you can flaunt these sorts of arbitrary decretum, but it gets awkward. Especially if you’re a guy and you wear a skirt to work. Even in less formal language some norms and restrictions are unbeatable. For example, it is literally impossible to use fuck as an adverb.

Just like in culture there is a perpetual conflict between the old traditions and newer developments. My Gr .E. T. used to complain on a regular basis about how kids threw like around (ie. “I, like, saw Johnny at Macy’s and she was, like, totally giving him her, like, phone number.”) and how this was simply an inappropriate way to speak. Even though it seems to have received a certain amount of acceptance in casual speech, it is rare that you’ll find it written down except in, like, ironic and satirical capacities. But the linguistic phenomenon of like is receiving greater academic attention, such as by Muffy Siegel of Temple University, whose research tries to pin down the nature of like’s usage in modern language. Maybe this will make like a little more likable to the grammatical old-guard out there (though it doesn’t seem likely).

In the end the battle over appropriate and inappropriate language boils down to context. Formal grammar and word usage will always butt its heads against the various dialects and slang terms out there, a conflict that often manifests itself in grannies vigorously ramming soap into precocious seven year-old mouths. There is a place, time and particularly effective and aesthetic benefit to all linguistic evolution in most respects. Just remember, a lot of the time, it’s a fine line between cookies and soap.

November 6, 2002 Blueprint Web Administrator No Comments