Hello again, fellow grammar sticklers

September 18, 2007, 3:41 PM UTC
Fortune


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Quite a few of you seem to be interested in the subject of grammar, the usage of English in both social and business settings, in speech and on paper. Some of you deplore the existence of grammar entirely. Others defend it with the kind of passion that the citizens of Chicago reserve for the Cubs, with probably the same success.

After I peeved a while back in this space about the distinction between “me” and “I” in our continually devolving culture in this regard, I got enough mail to warrant a full-torque column in that greatest of all business publications, FORTUNE Magazine, where I occupy the back page, as most of you know, I think?

Anyhow, that column is read by people who occasionally touch paper, take a walk outside, think about analog things now and then. One of those turns out to be a very smart fellow by the name of Steve Glass, who teaches Classics and Classical Archaeology at the Claremont Colleges in California. As opposed to me, who admits to being something of a bulls**t artist capable of bloviating on virtually any subject with equal credibility for five minutes, Mr. Glass appears actually to know what he’s talking about on his chosen subjects, one of which is grammar. “Mr. Bing,” he writes…

I greatly enjoyed your piece on “The Element’s of Style” in the August 20 edition of *Fortune.* A moment’s respite and a temporarily empty computer screen before the fall semester begins moves me to offer a few ruminations on some of the points you raise.

The inability to distinguish “I” from “me” is difficult to remedy given that relatively few people can tell a preposition from a proposition. How would one explain the principle of a preposition’s taking an object to those who have never heard of an object. These days, when one is teaching, say, Latin, it’s necessary to have one’s students buy a small book, titled *English Grammar for Students of Latin.* With a little editing, it works for students of Greek as well. What good does it do to explain to students that the accusative case is used for the direct object and the dative case for the indirect object when they’ve never heard of either and have never had teachers who knew how, or were moved to diagram a sentence on the board in front of a classroom? I think you’re right: as regards the object versus the subject of a personal pronoun, “the distinction … may be disappearing.” I suppose that the split infinitive issue is related to the personal pronoun problem in that both are directly related to the fact that English, at least in its post-Old English incarnation as a lightly inflected language, was deliberately saddled with a set of highly inflected grammatical rules that were ill-suited to the language thus saddled. How many times have you heard people say that they never really understood the principles of English until they studied Latin. Why should they have had to study Latin to learn that?

“Their” versus “they’re” versus “there” have a permanent home in student papers and examinations, where homophones, homonyms, and homographs my students don’t distinguish those terms either flourish like the green bay tree. One gets used to them, sigh, but they still inflict grating visual pain on their reader.

“Its” and “it’s. Well another sigh this related to your entire article and certainly raises what has always seemed to me to be a curious point about language; it has to do with that point you raise later about the linguistics folk who constantly remind one of the inevitable mutability of language. They’re right, of course, and I suppose it’s worth noting that “it’s” was, in the distant past, the proper spelling of the possessive rather than a contraction of “it is.” The curious point of all this is that we are all aware of linguistic change, and, when we employ what we currently consider a correct spelling or correct grammatical principle, we are, more often than not, using a form that is the direct result of a change that occurred at some time in the distant past. We weren’t there, of course, to object to that change when it occurred, and, as I say, are perfectly content to use it thus changed. When a linguistic change occurs in our own time, however, we orthoepists are outraged, though our descendants will cheerfully employ that change without demurrer. Hell, I’m still pissed off about the designated hitter rule.

Thanks again for the entertainment. It was sent to me by a colleague in the local Economics department. By the way, if you’re disquieted by the strange fortunes besetting the apostrophe, you ought to see what’s happened to the semicolon.

Thanks, Steve. Call me old fashioned, but I get a real charge out of knowing there’s still somebody who cares about punctuation.