Friday, January 20, 2017

What the dickens!

Acceptance of multiculturalism in the 21st century has brought about a spirit of tolerance that sometimes leads to amusing results in the study of grammar. While grammarians in the early 20th century were free to dismiss as barbarous illiteracy what appears to us today to be no more than a minor syntactic inelegance, grammarians these days hum and haw when confronted with an obvious solecism and they do all they can to excuse the error as an acceptable variant when it clearly isn't. In the same spirit of pusillanimity, linguists these days are quick to remind their readers that the grammar they write is descriptivist and they turn their noses up at the works of grammarians of a previous generation which they label as 'prescriptivist'.

Of course language changes all the time and many of the errors of the early 20th century are now standard usage and anyone who continues to call them errors are today rightly branded pedants. But some errors which blatantly offend against logic and reason or which are an outrageous violation of basic grammatical rules are still errors. The day will no doubt come when the illiterate masses will turn the tide of usage entirely in their favour since, as we are always reminded, language is not the monopoly of the elite few but the property of all users irrespective of their learning. The simple rule of democracy tells us that language belongs less to the literate who are comparatively few in number and more to the unlettered masses who can't identify an adverbial clause even if you serve it to them on a platter with flickering neon lights all round. Language is probably the only science where a wrong that is repeated often enough by a large number of people invariably becomes right.

But until that happens (and no doubt it will happen), a wrong remains wrong and no grammarian should be ashamed to declare this openly. But that's not what we are seeing.

Gone are the days when grammarians had fire in the belly and would unflinchingly dismiss incorrect usage as that which 'should be left to the uneducated.' I recall my childhood days when reading books on grammar and usage was never a chore; it was fun and entertaining. Wrong usage was sometimes condemned as 'feminine or childish colloquialism' and infelicitous use of a word could get you slammed as a 'wanker'. When the strongest word we'd ever seen in print in our childhood library sanitised by parental imprimatur was 'damned' and even then it was printed as 'd---d', it's little wonder that many of us in those days were glued to books on grammar and usage as a source of entertainment.

Let's take the word 'accidently' as an example. Any English speaker knows it's a mistake. 'Accident' is a noun, 'accidental' an adjective and 'accidentally' its adverb. But today's linguists are inordinately interested in what the national corpus says. The Cambridge International Corpus of American English tells us that the frequency of use of 'accidently' vis-a-vis 'accidentally' in the US is 1:15. We understand from the British National Corpus that 'accidently' is less commonly used in Britain. It's almost twice as common in the US. The frequency of use in the UK is 1:28.

How does one interpret the data? Obviously, there are more illiterates in America than in the UK. Or at least we can conclude that Brits are about twice more careful with their spelling than Americans, in any event, for the word 'accidentally'.  But no, that's not how some grammarians interpret the data. After saying that she is not encouraging a preference for 'accidently', the linguist Pam Peters insists that 'it cannot be dismissed as a solecism'.

In order to defend 'accidently' as a legitimate word and not a spelling error, some linguists will point out that 'accident' had an adjectival role a long time ago. But that's nothing more than a piece of historical linguistic trivia. It is disingenuous to argue that those who write 'accidently' do so out of a desire to resuscitate the obsolete adjectival 'accident' and not because of mere carelessness or sheer ignorance.

It's not just Pam Peters who may be more lax than other linguists. Modern grammars show this same reluctance to say a sentence is wrong when it really is. I used to be puzzled when I read condemnations by older grammarians of the use of marginal modals that exhibited blends between the auxiliary construction and the main verb construction simply because such blends were so commonly seen even in the works of renowned authors and in major respectable newspapers. Older grammarians such as Fowler and Eric Partridge are emphatic that they are wrong. However, the authoritative Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (CGEL) takes this modern approach of accepting every conceivable usage as correct. This need to embrace all - even terrorists disguised as refugees hellbent on blowing up our cities and citizens - is a hallmark of the new world order. But why they are not wrong is not explained. CGEL merely says:
One would expect these [blends] to be ungrammatical; but they are not.
Of course when a grammatical error appears in the works of very famous writers, it's even less likely for today's grammarians to say it's an error. Charles Dickens wrote this in David Copperfield:
I heard that with the single exception of Mr. Creakle, Tungay considered the whole establishment, masters and boys, as his natural enemies, and that the only delight of his life was to be sour and malicious. 
Dickens Gurney head
 Charles Dickens

If Dickens' publisher had confronted him with the sentence, he would most certainly have apologised for the error. The author of more than a dozen novels, many of which exceed a thousand pages in length, cannot be faulted if he occasionally trips up on his grammar.

Dickens wasn't the only one. Decades before Dickens wrote David Copperfield, Jane Austen made the same mistake in one of her novels.

We can't be watchful of everything we write especially if we lived in an era when writing long unwieldy sentences was what everyone did. Dickens was in the habit of writing sentences that were so long that he probably couldn't remember what he wrote at the start of a sentence even before he reached the end of it. Explaining why Dickens made a mistake is fine. But when CGEL which is viewed as authoritative on grammar includes this same error as an acceptable construction without any qualification whatsoever, it gives legitimacy to the error and ensures no condemnation from future grammarians. No one seems prepared now to say that Dickens was wrong. Most grammars will quote CGEL and declare the usage acceptable and a few intrepid grammarians (eg Butterfield, 2015) may still point out that such usage is sure to attract strong censure from many English speakers. And in pure descriptivist fashion, they will not say a word more, sometimes leaving the reader to conclude unjustly that those who object to such a construction are just being captious and pedantic.

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