abuse of grammar

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A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

17.3 (Summer 2017)


Literature vs. the Academy


One Small Step for Incoherence, One Giant Leap for Anarchy: Three Specific Cases Where Abuse of Grammar Is Reshaping Culture
John R. Harris

Abuse of grammar is a feature of casual and conversational speech, where it can indeed add color to exchanges; but for some time now it has been formally taught as “correct” by academics who are unwittingly (or intentionally) nourishing degenerative habits of thought.

I do not take grammar lightly. The way we describe reality in our speech and writing at last, reciprocally, determines the way we perceive reality. That is, though we may start out painting pictures of what we see, we end up seeing likenesses of the pictures we paint. (The cliché example is the Eskimo’s dozen words to describe snow; the rest of us, having just the one word, tend not to notice distinctions that might be important during a winter storm.) Linguistic institutions never remain static, of course. Some degree of evolution over a century or two is natural—and to say that our thinking gets sloppier as our grammar grows more slovenly is to envision a Hesiodic universe, with a Golden Age at its beginning and nothing but degeneration thereafter. I don’t find adequate justification to make that claim: on the contrary, there are periods when grammar grows more intricate, accommodating many distinctions unknown to previous generations, and when vocabulary explodes with useful words that further categorize snow or love or furry quadrupeds.

Yet we are not currently embarked upon one of those periods. In this small space, I leave the tortured words of our common vocabulary to one side, since their degeneracy is on display practically everywhere (e.g., the misuse of “notoriety” to signify “fame” and of “tragedy” to signify “calamity” throughout mass media). Precisely because it often hides coyly within or behind clusters of words, grammar is both less often detected in its descent of the slippery slope and also, probably, more impactful upon our collective morale as it goes to hell; for a poorly used word undermines clarity only at those moments when it’s actually used, but an abused grammatical structure leaves loose scaffolding that a wide variety of floorboards may seal from sight. Specific word choice tends to determine the level of keenness in our thoughts; grammar can have an effect on our very ability to execute thinking in a fluid, profitable manner.

Below I offer three examples of routine grammatical abuses that just may have far-reaching—and destructive—consequences as the twenty-first century bores along through the calendar.

Example One: agreement errors in number involving pronouns and their antecedents (e.g., “Every student needs to bring their textbook to the next class.”)

I used to think that I would get used to student papers littered with sentences like. “Each patient knows their chances are not good,” and, “An author at that time would be rejected if they had no sponsors.” It hasn’t happened, and I’ve decided that I do not want it to happen. If I must die by firing squad, then I will decline the blindfold.

The third-person plural pronoun referring to a singular antecedent has become a fixture in our postmodern babble. Sometimes the result is insolubly confusing. None of the following sentences can be interpreted confidently without further context: “The applicant who convinces the judges of their argument’s vulnerability from both directions will become a finalist”; “the patient whose doctors understand that they need more sleep is in good hands”; and “a coach whose players perform beyond their expectation is very lucky.”

Now, you and I commit such agreement errors all the time in conversation. They are a feature are informal usage, where misunderstanding can be quickly corrected by issuing a statement of clarification. The deeper problem—the real problem—is that the arbiters in university English departments are increasingly decreeing third-person agreement gaffes to be approved and required: not tolerable, but the only way to go. On this topic, a friend lately wrote me, “One ambitious termigant in my own department has refused to address me civilly in the two years since I challenged her championing of the singular ‘they’ in a public email. I hadn’t realized that the issue was so sensitive. Guess I’m lucky that I didn’t get slapped with a sexual harassment suit.”

And my contact’s fear is not as facetious as it should be. Maupassant once quipped that all stories are about either sex or death: the “mandatory misagreement” flap appears to be about both. Our language must die so that sexually specific pronouns may never again be spoken. If the student or patient in our sentence above is designated a “he”, then we have just committed a sexist crime; and if we choose “she” to privilege the female, the new god is still not propitiated. In fact, we may have made our situation worse, for our willingness to shift feminine in all generic cases could be misread as a gesture arising from that hotbed of quintessential sexism, chivalry. (Naturally, “she or he” runs into the same quagmire if we try to redeem the offensive order of “he or she”).

Equal time for the genders is no longer what’s at stake. The new objective is the utter annihilation of genders.

I could go on and on about what psychological perversion lies at the heart of such linguistic anarchy… but really, what lies at the heart of anarchy in any of its expressions? “Evil, be thou my good!” cries Satan in the masterpiece of that arch-sexist poet, John Milton. The anarchist desires to see the world turned helter-skelter. Up must go down, and in must go out. Creation must be undone to the point that no clue of its original design remains. The people who push such counter-programmatic programs have some kind of invincible grudge against life. Since they cannot remake it to be just the way they would have liked, they will satisfy themselves (so they mistakenly believe—for these people are never satisfied) with stealing the sense of life from everybody else. At least they will have accomplished something, merely by doing that. They will have forced everyone to share their single guiding insight as they shout from atop an infernal dunghill, “None of it means sh*t! Nothing! None of it!”

You may think my transition to the Prince of Darkness too far a reach from a single solecism. After all, as the academic advocates of illogic never tire of saying on this issue, Shakespeare also used “theys” with singular antecedents once or twice. (A really obtuse line of argument, that. Consider: 1) we do not even know if the Shakespearean corpus is entirely the product of a single author; 2) we do know that redaction and editing at the time were very fallible, sometimes even haphazard; 3) the bard composed plays—his lines were always intended to flow from some character’s mouth, and Caliban doesn’t observe the same rules of usage as Prospero; 4) one or two lapses, in any case, cannot suffice to establish a new criterion—the issue is whether or not Shakespeare typically matched “they/their” with singular antecedents; and 5) Shakespeare has been cited as the preeminent authority on Modern English usage by nobody with respect to any other issue, precisely for Reasons One through Four.) What I find particularly revealing about the “Shakespeare defense” is that those who pose it do not read Shakespeare and would often be quite happy to see his white male carcass escorted out of the curriculum. They speak to us of “gender justice” for a while… and then, suddenly, they invoke the bard of Stratford-on-Avon.

Where an argument has so little logical coherence and so little intellectual honesty, the malodorous work of the propagandist may well be afoot. So… yes, I do believe that some massively disruptive and demoralizing project might interest itself in picking apart fine points of grammar. A brick here, a brick there… the plan is not to blow up the edifice, but to arrange for its final collapse one fine day when a brick too many is removed from a critical wall.

Example Two: improper use of the conditional mood in the protasis of a contrary-to-fact statement (e.g., “If I would have known that Susan’s father was dying, I would not have said that.”)

The logic of using the pluperfect tense (“had” + past participle) with “if” is impeccable, upon careful consideration. The “if” itself having already shifted the statement to a speculative level, the ensuing pluperfect proceeds to fill in a condition whose time preceded the critical event-that-never-happened in the apodosis. “I would have said nothing” implies that you did indeed say something, but that different conditions would have drawn a different (apparently silent) response from you. What condition, precisely, needed to change? Your ignorance that Susan’s father was dying. That highly relevant bit of factual information was not in your possession when you spoke. With proper arrangement of tenses, you can clearly indicate a situation—contrary to the facts, as they turned out—involving your knowing about the death before the moment of your remark. The knowing must come before the speaking, so you say, “If I had known that Susan’s father was dying, then”—and now we advance to a slightly later time that is handled in the conditional mood, because this is not what you actually did: “I would have said nothing.”

It might be argued that because prior knowledge of the father’s desperate state was also contrary to the situation’s hard facts, the conditional mood is appropriate there, too; but by saying, “If I would have known,” you emphasize the hypothetical character of the knowledge rather than its temporal precedence of your unhappy remark. This muddies the water somewhat. Is the point to be underscored that both clauses are contrary to fact, or that a different result would have followed if some earlier set of circumstances had veered left instead of right? Again, “if” already tells the audience that the ensuing clause is conjectural. Using the conditional mood in that clause merely doubles down on information made plain from the first word, while also leaving the relationship of events in time a bit foggy.

Could it be that the new preference for the “if I would have” structure implies a growing distance from the objectivity of events in time? Are we witnessing the steady collapse of what happens around us into a stream-of-consciousness subjectivity—an alternative view of reality that isn’t convinced of or concerned about the substance of events separated from our personal ego? Think of it this way. In an objective universe, A happens first, and then B happens as its consequence: cause and effect. On Tuesday, C happened first, so D occurred instead of B. If A had happened, the B would have happened: i.e., postulate A as the original event, and then B would—under that condition—have happened next or later.

But our twenty-first century preference doesn’t see things that way. Both events are identical in tense, and both have been shuttled into the conditional mood. They have complete equality as residents of our imagination: that’s the one point about them that we consider worthy of emphasis. Their objective character as a cause and its effect has disintegrated as they swirl about loosely in our fantasy—unconnected bubbles, so to speak, that never broke reality’s surface. A reality so expressed seems more dependent upon our notice of events, now that we have erased the logical order implicit in those events.

Example Three: improper transformation of possessive + gerund into a noun/pronoun + present participle (e.g., “I hate Tom trying to take credit for the whole job.”)

I personally have never used the “if I would have” construction even in the most casual conversation; but as for the “they” with a singular antecedent and the abuse of the gerund in this example, I am sometimes guilty. Again, at issue in the items under discussion is not the occasional lapse, especially in informal circumstances, but rather the recognized standard enforced by teaching and textbooks. Most education professionals know well (though some will feign ignorance or skepticism because they sense their position to be very vulnerable) that the academy has favored casual, demotic usage over formal, logically sustained, time-honored usage for some good while. The enforcement of rules is viewed as “elitist” and even (stupidly or deviously, depending on the individual) “racist”. Since grammatical standards are not encoded in our DNA, those standards can at most be considered “classist”—and certain races tend to be excluded from certain classes in certain societies, it is true. The snobbery that can find expression in language, however, most often wraps itself in particular pronunciations rather than in the observance of rules (e.g., uttering “Iraq” as “eye-RACK” rather than “ih-ROCK” is likely to earn one’s opinions instant disparagement in diplomatic circles, though the opinions themselves may be quite sound.) Since a good rule always has a logical reason for being, on the other hand, attacking it just because schools in poorer neighborhoods don’t teach it would be similar to demanding the dissolution of all physics departments just because those same schools don’t offer a calculus course.

Nevertheless, since the late Sixties, academics from elite institutions—perhaps in a sense of suppressed guilt over their privilege, perhaps in a bid to demonstrate their moral superiority to those of “lesser conscience”—have savaged even the most logical of rules in their seminal writings and teachings as if they were leading some populist revolution. The justice of no rule could be more transparent than that dictating the use of a possessive before a gerund. It is not Tom I hate: it is his trying to take credit for the whole job. If I say, “Jill’s overhearing our conversation creates a problem,” I am concerned about the overhearing and not about Jill, specifically; Jack’s overhearing the same conversation probably would have created the same problem. Yet how often does one actually hear (or overhear) such a formulation in day-to-day chatter? Jill is almost never made the possessor of her good ears: it is she herself who is our problem.

As a student of oral tradition, I know of many quaint inaccuracies that reflect the carelessness of fluid speech and have been commemorated by the elegant terms of rhetors. Hendiadys, for instance, designates the tendency to “flatten out” expressions paratactically with conjunctions rather than to style them with logical precision (e.g., “calm and collected” rather than “calmly collected” or “come and get it” rather than “come to get it”/”while coming, get it”: old Leonides, we should note, spoke the last of these with Spartan precision). There’s a little of the same color in the “I hate Tom trying” structure. If J.M. Synge had written the sentence into a play, one of his men of rural Munster or Wicklow might have rambled, “I’ve no love for Tom, and he trying for to win the praise and glory of all when it’s ourselves have done the job with him.” The extended participial phrase tacks on the true reason for the speaker’s resentment, which deflects its full force from Tom as it continues to wander through mounting flourishes of words.

The result, as I say, is quaint, and even delightful—in an oral society. In one such as ours, I fear that it may represent a dangerous blurring of our feeling’s true target; and being post-literate (which is not at all the same thing as being pre-literate), our fellow citizens will not unfold their emotion in grand Syngian manner, but instead will content themselves with Tweetable fragments. “Hate that guy Tom. Steals credit from others.” More and more, in so many ways, we see those around us as two-dimensional placards and are encouraged to do so. That one there: young black dude. May be safe enough—skinny, kind of gay, doesn’t look like he works out. That one over there: white chick, thirty-something, pants suit, a little overweight but nice up top, GI Joe haircut—real good chance she votes Democrat. We get ourselves into trouble if we “stereotype” people too outspokenly in mixed company; yet our culture teaches us no other way to think, and the PC fury over stereotyping is indeed blowback from the “class, stamp, and file” mentality advanced by none other than the political correctness movement: that is, the thought police berate us not for stereotyping, but for giving voice to the “wrong” stereotype!

By failing to distinguish between the agent and his action, we hasten the day when a mere appearance is instantly and inexorably a string of possible actions associated with it. I suspect we are already living in that day’s prickly, overcast dawn.

Dr. John Harris is the founder and president of The Center for Literate Values.  He teaches English classes at the University of Texas at Tyler.