Archive for August 2008

Go ahead, it’s ok to like, totally, split that infinitive. At.

August 28, 2008

Once upon a time English grammarians sat perched on their teacher’s desk chairs, red pen at the ready, nearly drooling in anticipation of marking a student’s infinitive splitting.  It was a crime nearly unparalleled, a sin so egregious that points were instantly docked from the composition in question, and the margins were sullied with the teacher’s scrawled code: “spl inf” or some such other abbreviation that the student was expected to look up in the style manual.  

Having studied Latin and Spanish a bit before eventually earning my Ph.D. in English, I learned that an infinitive is the core form of a verb.  In English, it’s translated as the “to” form: to be, to swim, to err.  But in languages like Latin and Spanish, there is no separate “to” in the verb’s form; it’s a single work: hacer (to do); vivir (to live); laudare (to praise).  The problem in English is that people have a tendency to put words between the “to” and the verb–for example, “to boldly go where no man has gone before.”  That’s technically grammatically wrong.  It should read “To go boldly.”

But the tides are changing–my father recently pointed out to me that the Chicago Manual of Style, one of the most respected style manuals in use in the U.S., now okays splitting infinitives.  It’s now ok to, like, put words in the middle of the infinitive “to” form of a word. Hallelujah! Every American child will shout with glee as their essays will now all be graded 3 or more points higher.

But seriously.  I think it’s great that grammarians have caught up with standard use.  In my opinion, grammar really ought to serve as a guide to ensure clarity, not a tool with which we punish young learners (and old academics).  Language is a living thing, constantly changing to suit its users.  I am certain that Shakespeare never used the words “giga” or “biggie-size.”  That doesn’t make those words wrong in modern day English.

That being said, there are some language changes going on that I just can’t seem to deal with.  Take prepositions for example.  These days it’s perfectly acceptable, in everyday talk, to end sentences with prepositions–it feels awkward to say “from where are you?”  We just say “hey, where’re you from?”  Sure, I probably wouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition in a paper I was writing for publication, but is there any question about what I mean if I say “which TV does this remote go to?”  I think not.  However, along with this laxity about prepositions has come the erroneous, and I think obnoxious, tendency to drop the preposition “at” where it was never meant to go.  While the current norm is to take prepositions that were originally supposed to go early in the sentence and put them at the end (ie: “to whom should I direct this call” becomes “who should I refer this person to”), people drop “at” in sentences it never existed in in the first place.  

Example of nice, normal sentence: “Where is my hat?”

Awkward prepositional drop-in: “Where is my hat at?”

This is not a case of language changing, this is a case of taking a changing rule and misapplying a part of speech.  I am a firm believer in brevity, and cannot understand why you’d just throw a word in to a sentence that never had a place there to begin with.  The sentence stands alone perfectly well without the at.  In one of the other examples, you can’t just dump the preposition: “from where are you?” can’t become “where are you?” That’s a totally different sentence, asking where a person is now rather than where the person’s origins are.

So, if you happen to see me somewhere and ask me where something is at, you can count on me to say, “after the t.”

Why sometimes Y?

August 25, 2008

Why is “y” a vowel only sometimes? And why bother when the vowels is replaces work just fine? I mean, millions of american parents have proven that kelly can be just as happy, maybe even more so, as “Kelli,” Christy can be Kristi (oh, that c/k thing is a whole other post).  So why the y? 

The short answer is that the English language has as mixed a heritage as most Americans; our language has ancient influences from Hebrew, Greek, Latin, French and others, and more modern influences from African, European, and other cultures.  But since English spelling wasn’t codified until 1604 (Robert Cawdry) or in the 18th century (Samuel Johnson), depending on who you ask, the language was hardly carved in stone till then.   Prior to that everything from proper nouns to adjectives could be spelled in varying ways–remember, western society has not always been a literate one!  

It’s also important to remember that English comes from, well, England! And England is a geographical place that’s relatively small but strategically well-placed so that it suffered numerous invasions over the centuries, which resulted in a lot of linguistic variations from the invading countries.  

Wikipedia tells us that what we call “y” is an amalgam of u and i (say u and i smooshed together–yoo-eye) which became “y” after the Great Vowel Shift (another utterly fascinating topic I’ll cover another day).  At any rate, changes in usage from Old English with its Latin influences to Middle English with some French influences to Modern English meant that there has been overlap in usage.  So Y, which is generally thought to be a hardworking consonant in such treasures as yodel, yuck, and yippee ki yi yay, is also a replacement for both long i (Wyeth) and short (myth) and long e (happy).  Yikes!

Try explaining all this to a first grader who’s trying to demystify (there’s that pesky y again, twice in one word with two different sounds!) reading. 

Which brings me to the first linguistic pet peeve I’ll share in the opening of this blog: American’s freewheeling and totally unnecessary use–I dare say abuse–of the poor old Y as a vowel.  Apparently, perfectly good boys’ names that have been around for ages (usually as surnames originally) are appealing to many parents as girls’ names.  Well, that’s all well and good (and I better say that, since I’ve got an Arden at home).  But taking a name like Hayden or Jordan and flinging a y in there doesn’t make it any more feminine–it just makes life more confusing, especially for the poor kid who’s got to go to school and learn to write it! 

If that weren’t enough, parents who just feel utterly compelled to choose one of the top three most popular girl names (oh, let’s throw Madison out there), but don’t want to give their child a “common” name, change the spelling a little, thinking that will somehow uniquify the child.  Let’s face it, Madisyn sounds no different than Madison and making this change just subjects the poor child to a life time of saying “no, that’s with an s-y-n actually.”   Same goes for Lauryn, Brandyn, Justyn, and so on.  I truly hate to see the poor y used this way. Maybe we should all be given an allotment of ys at birth and once we use them, we’re done.  

Remember, folks, it’s sometimes Y.  Not when-I-think-it-might-look-cute y.