Posts Tagged ‘proper usage’

Kurt R.A. GiambastianiI’ve been known to be…overenthusiastic…about proper grammar. However, I have been loosening the laces on my jackboots, of late, as my definition of “proper” English usage evolves. A recent opinion piece in the NY Times, however, has shifted my perspective even more.

The example in that piece that really spoke to me was the 19th century difference between “first two” and “two first,” when speaking of people in a queue. Today, we wouldn’t blink twice at anyone who used either one or the other to signify the two people at the front of the line. Back in Edith Wharton’s day, though, the “two first” people meant the two people at the front of a line, while the “first two” people meant the first couple in a line of couples.

What started this evolution of attitude? Without a doubt, it was Shakespeare. For years I struggled with the “rule” to never end a sentence with a preposition, and so my was peppered with convoluted sentence syntax where the “which” in the center got me out of a prepositional-ending jam. Necessarily, I sometimes came out with sentences almost as bad as the anecdotal Churchill line: “That, madam, is something up with which I shall not put!”

But if Shakespeare–my all-time favorite writer–if Shakespeare didn’t have a qualm about ending a clause with a preposition (“..the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to…”), who the hell am I to quibble? And while Edith Wharton–whose work I truly admire–did quibble over “first two” and “two first,” what about Austen, Thackeray, and a host of others I also adore who used language that today would be considered downright wrong?

Language evolves. We’ve been “verbing nouns” and changing the meaning of words ever since we learned to speak. Do you know the difference between a present and a gift? There is a difference, and I know what that difference is, but in this day of the “free gift” (a redundancy if ever there was one), should I ding someone if they use the wrong one?

I will hold tight to certain tenets of my Grammarian Faith–the simple truth of correct spelling and apostrophe use; my adherence to the Oxford comma; my belief that almost any sentence ending in “at” doesn’t need that word; and the simple, common-sense rule that if your writing is unclear or can be misconstrued, it’s improper–but I really need to chill when it comes to a lot of other cringe-worthy uses.

The language is changing around us. No stopping it.

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