Monday, February 11, 2008

An English Lesson

Those "-ing" words were GERUNDS, for Pete's sake! They may have looked like verbs, but they were nouns in drag. They should have been treated as such. Thus, "no evidence of ITS occurring," and "SOMEONE'S going into a meeting," and "HIS being the last man standing," and "sick PEOPLE'S staying home."
(the above from here--do read the whole essay)

In the pure etymological sense of the word, I am a philologist. I'm an amateur (again, in the pure etymological sense of that word as well), but were I not called to be a priest, I might well be a professional in that field. Words and language delight me. I've been known to read a dictionary just for fun, and I were ever to receive the unabridged Oxford English Dictionary (a multi-volume set, very expensive) as a gift, I would consider it a pure joy. To know the story of a language is to know the story of those who speak it.

Any language is always evolving. That is an inescapable, if often demoralizing, fact. There is a dynamic tension between the forces of linguistic purity (how language should be used) and the forces of change (how language is actually used). Out of this dynamic tension something resembling a standard emerges, but never without controversy. A lexicographer's work is truly never done.

I'm pretty much a linguistic curmudgeon. When I hear a radio news reporter say "the data shows...", I immediately turn off the radio in protest. (It should be "the data show...", 'data' being a plural noun.) I'm part of that conservative restraining force in the above-referenced dynamic tension. Apparently James J. Kilpatrick is too, as his rant from which the excerpt quoted at the head of this post indicates. I have to be honest; I was not up to speed on gerunds. But now I have been set straight, and am humbly repentant.

Apart from the perverse satisfaction taken from pushing people's buttons, why sign up for the Grammar and Usage Police? What service to society do they (OK, we) provide? Precisely what's at stake is ... precision. So much of human conflict is rooted in failed communication that it seems worth the effort to actually say what we mean.

Now, if you're thinking, "I could care less about grammar and usage," you're wrong. It's actually that you could NOT care less about grammar and usage. See my point?

So, go forth and learn the difference between counsel and council; between imminent, immanent, and eminent; between discreet and discrete, between compliment and complement, between principle and principal, between cite and site (to say nothing of sight), and between whit and wit. Just for starters. (Yes, that was an incomplete sentence, which my teachers would never have let me get away with, but which is now acceptable in the informal milieu of blog writing. Don't try doing it in your doctoral dissertation, however.)


Unknown said...

Fr. Martins,

For once, we have something upon which to agree wholeheartedly.

Yes, I confess that I am an unreformed English major and a card-carrying member of the Professional Organization of English Majors . . . or is it the Partnership or the Secret Society?

Anyway, bad grammar is an annoyance up with which I will not put. ;-)

United in love of language . . . and Christ,
Kevin Montgomery

catsinger said...

...ah...someone else who recognizes that obsessive-compulsive DOES have a hyphen...[hee,hee]

in my English credential "grammar" class, we called them, "grammar jocks"...

Anonymous said...

Now if you would just get straight onto the gerundives . . .

Lisa Fox said...

Like KevinM, I give thanks that you and I can see eye-to-eye on something. When I hear phrases like "data" and "media" so misused by folks who should know better, it's like fingernails on chalkboard for me.

Sign me up for the Philology Curmudgeon club!

j martins said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Paul (A.) said...

Don't rely on Kilpatrick, however, as any kind of authority on grammar: He is largely ignorant of English idiom.

His opening criticism is just wrong: "The death was confirmed by Gardar Sverrisson, a close friend of Mr. Fischer's."

How's that again? What's that hanging possessive doing there? A critical reader is bound to inquire, Mr. Fischer's what? Mr. Fischer's brother? His mother? His dog? We're talking grammar today. The topic ranks with economics as a deadly science, but grammar has to be a constant concern of every writer.

The Timesman fell into a double genitive. The "of" in "close friend of" provided all the attribution the sentence required.

So if Mr. Sverisson happened to be a friend of Kilpatrick's, he'd identify him as "a friend of me" rather than "a friend of mine"?

Actually, maybe he would.