Having taught English a number of years, I suppose I’m expected to be a little stuffy about language, and I confess I am. So I have to remind myself constantly that language changes almost at the speed of light. The editor of Harper’s could use a little reminding, too. In a recent editorial, he cited grievances against several language abuses. One of them was the “rhetorical escape hatch.” (“Easy Chair, Broken English” by Thomas Frank, Harper’s 4/13, pg. 6.)
A rhetorical escape hatch is a phrase like, “one might say,” or “one could argue,” both of which imply that the person using the phrase is repeating a suggestion made by others, one that does not necessarily represent his or her views. Frank opposes such phrases because they spread ideas without anyone being held accountable. I understand his position but I suspect his views will have little impact on the numerous scholars, politicians and critics who rely on this form of evasion. Evasion, after all, is the point. Another of Frank’s complaints is how people use the word argue when there is no debate going on. A person is merely expressing his or her opinion, as in “I would argue that…”
I confess, I was sitting with Frank on his high horse until he used the word historical. I knew that historic would do. The extra syllable seems not only inefficient but pretentious, as if Frank wishes to show he is capable of longer words. I break out in the same rash when I hear economical instead of economic. Of course my biggest despair is the death of the subjunctive tense, a form in English where the verb is never required to agree in number with its subject. I wish I were king has always been correct and not I wish I was king. Nonetheless, the subjunctive is a dying idiom.
Why do I grieve when I hear changes taking hold in speech or writing? Because I’m used to the older forms. There is no other reason. At some impressionable point in my life, my teachers told me one manner of expression was right and another was wrong. My grade depended on which I chose. People like me who cringe at variations in language are enforcers, behaving as if we could stem the tide of changes in common usage. As Shakespeare’s Puck said, “Lord, what fools these mortals be.” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, III ,ii, 110-115)
In my old age, with my teachers moldering in their graves, I’ve come to realize that grammar — what’s in and what’s out — is a form of snobbery, a way to distinguish those who know from those who don’t, much like knowing which fork to use at a formal dinner. Could I eat my pie with my salad fork? Yes, I could and the earth would continue to revolve around the sun, though my dinner companions might titter at me behind their linen napkins. The correct standard for language is only this: Does it communicate?
(Courtesy of www.traditioninaction.com)