Monday, July 13, 2009

Word Nazi 2

Language is important to me. As I've mentioned before, anything that contributes to the crumbling of language works on my nerves. Here are a few more examples.

I have always hated the phrase "as best I can," ever since I first spotted it - probably in a statement by President Bill Clinton. It seems to have taken on a kind of respectable currency. But it doesn't make grammatical sense. You can say "I'm doing the best I can," or you can claim to be doing something "as well as I can," but you braid these two expressions together at your own risk. Or rather, at the risk of eroding the power of words.

"As ___ I can" calls for an adverb (such as "well") and another "as." Meanwhile, "___ best I can" requires only a definite article, "the." The one is a comparison between what I'm doing and what I can do. The other uses a relative clause, "(that) I can," to qualify my claim to be doing "the very best." They aren't such dissimilar ideas that you should have trouble choosing between them. Either one will do in a given context. But if you mash them together, all you get is an ungrammatical cant phrase.

Other usages have become current without any consideration for the rules of language. When I read them or hear them, I don't think, "There goes the English language." It isn't just my language that I'm worried about. It's people's ability to order their thoughts, and to make meaningful connections between them. It is, in a nutshell, language itself that suffers.

For example, take the title of an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: "Let He Who Is Without Sin." Based on a biblical allusion, the implied ending of this sentence fragment is "Cast the First Stone." Apparently the TV show's budget didn't allow them to include the full sentence in the title, but that isn't my problem. My problem is with the word "He." I am morally certain the word should be "Him." And it isn't just a matter of misquoting John 8:7 (KJV: "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her"). It's a matter of confusing the case of the pronoun.

The cause of the confusion seems to be the phrase "who is without sin," inserted after the main clause beginning with "let." We expect "he who is without sin" to be correct, either because we vaguely remember John 8:7 or because "he who" sounds better than "him who." Or maybe we just think the subject of "cast" must be "he" rather than "him." The confusion could be cleared up simply by deleting the phrase "who is without sin." We would then see that "Let him cast the first stone" is correct grammar, a fact not altered by inserting the adjectival phrase "who is without sin."

I'm far from the first person to express irritation at the politically correct, gender-neutral use of "they" as a singular pronoun. Sentences such as, "The author should get their pronouns straight," and, "Anyone who has a problem with the gender-inclusive he can do thus to themselves," are an assault not only on the historic usage of the English language, but on the reasoning part of the human mind - the part where pronouns must agree with their antecedents in at least number, if we are to have any power to put thoughts together meaningfully.

Back when I watched TV, I used to bristle at the "headline-speak" frequently spoken by news presenters. Rather then telling us what had happened in complete sentences, they often resorted to titles and slogans such as, "In South Carolina, new questions about the governor's infidelity," and, "Heat wave in Oklahoma," etc. One or two additional words would have sufficed to turn those headlines into full sentences. And some sentences can be pretty clever, such as: "The panhandle is too hot to touch."

As Jesus points out in Luke 14:28, before you build a tower, you should count the cost, whether you have enough to complete it. Writers, likewise, should "count the cost" of sentences they have begun, and make sure they balance out at the end. When you see decent author lose track of whether a sentence's subject is plural or singular, you can reasonably deduce that he hasn't counted the cost. It's amazing to see how many talented, professional writers match a plural verb to a singular subject such as "John or Mary." John and Mary do this; John or Mary does this. It's a grammatical jungle out there, however. What do you do with "You or I" when the main verb is a form of "be"? Do you say "You or I are"? Can it be that you or I "am"? Or maybe you or I "is"?

But even more often, the problem is (again) the case of the pronoun "I." It really can't be as hard as today's prose makes it look. And yet "you and I" frequently pops up as the object of a verb or preposition, while at times the subject is "you and me." This gets past editors as well as authors. The head-scratching really starts to generate heat when words such as like, as, or than are involved, and in nominal sentences where the verb is a form of "be." Billy Joel actually has it correct when he croons: "It's only you and I." It is I. But, it is like me. "Like" seems to be one of those prepositions that demands an accusative object. So anything we compare to ourselves must be "just like you and me."

Sometimes you have to imagine the verb that would follow the pronoun. Should the sentence go "You are as tall as me" or "as tall as I"? Stick another "be" verb at the end and you'll see that "you are as tall as I (am)." Are you heavier than me or heavier than I? Same deal. If you keep this up, you will soon be smarter than I.

When you know how to put sentences together - when you really learn to think them through - you can make some interesting discoveries. Certain subtleties only open themselves to those who have trained themselves to see them. For example, take the sentence, "Like you and me, the newspaper has issues." It's a clever little thing, playing on a double meaning. The phrase "to have issues" can mean, in the case of the newspaper, to be published in one volume after another; or, in the case of you and me, to have problems in our relationship resulting from some past events.

Now suppose you flip the sentence around. "The newspaper has issues, like you and me." This sentence plays on the same double-meaning as before, but it links these ideas in a different way. The first sentence was a humorous way of saying that you and I have things to talk about. The bit about the newspaper is just a witty bit of double entendre, like "Make like a tree and leave." The second sentence, on the other hand, means that a journal's problems are related to people "like you and me." We are among the people the newspaper is failing to reach.

The difference is what is "like you and me." In the first sentence, it was the newspaper. In the second, it was issues. This also changes the trajectory of the double entendre. When the newspaper, like you and me, had issues, the two meanings of "issues" were carefully distributed between the newspaper and us. The problems were on our side; the published volumes were on the journal's side. But in the second issue, both meanings of "issues" apply to the newspaper, one after the other. The phrase "like you and I" simply reveals the trick, prompting us to see a new side of the words "The newspaper has issues."

One reason for the newspaper's trouble may be that people (like you and me) are losing our ability to connect thoughts, to express or interpret ideas, to think and communicate. If our society is going to correct this, its burden will be to teach its next generation a better grasp of language.

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