Tuesday, 10 April 2007

I'm a Dodo

Worse than that, I'm an anachronism. I have another song running through my head, Dolly Parton this time (take that up with me later, okay?), repeats of a line that says 'Every night as I lay down.' Each time, I have to stop and correct the wretched thing to 'lie down.' Snarl. Curse. Cuckoo spit!

I was once a teacher of English grammar. I had to inculcate by precept and example such rules as the transitive and intransitive verb. 'The hen lays an egg,' is an example of a transitive verb. 'I lie down on my bed,' is intransitive and does not have an object. Are you all following this? Wake up over there. The verb 'to lie' is cased as 'I lie, I lay, I have lain', 'to lay" is 'I lay (the table), I laid, I have laid'. This distinction is now obsolete in 21st century English. Think of the number of young minds I burdened unnecessarily with this precious jargon.

There are other constructions that have developed in the last few years that I hate just as much. 'Jump off of', for example, or 'meet up with'. I mourn the loss of the admittedly vestigial subjunctive. ('If you were to agree with me, you would probably be as old as I am.') And the distinction between 'You may' and 'You can' is a useful one; pity it is being lost. I can only clutch my copy of Fowler to my heaving breast and mourn.

That having been said, I am reading the most delightful book, all about how language is learned and has evolved. Any parent of a child who says' I goed' and when corrected then says 'I wented' has got to enjoy it. The book is called 'The Language Instinct' and I enjoyed it in spite of the fact that Steven Pinker went to McGill. It is really funny at times, informative (he almost explained Noam Chomsky well enough for me to follow it) and comprehensive. Not your usual romp through the Angles, Chaucer and William the Conqueror, this book talks about how kids process language, how mothers talk to kids ('Motherese'), what constitutes language, and a lot more.

And there's not a high school grammar rule in it. I promise.


  1. If only my students had had their minds so burdened in high school...

    One of the chapters in the grammar text I use takes a stern line on the broad reference of this, which and it.

    i.e. In the newspaper it says that it will rain tomorrow, which means that our picnic is cancelled. This proves Murphy's Law.

    So I put sentences like that on the test, the students universally fail to catch the errors, and I wonder how much it really makes sense to penalize them for writing what is basically standard English.

  2. Aw, B&P. Virtual red pencil R in the margin next to the 4th para. "Many authorities forbid the use of 'which' or 'this'to refer to a whole sentence or clause,rather than a definite noun." quoted from Robertson's Errors in Composition. But 'that' doesn't sound right to me -- it's not a clear enough flag for the noun clause. I grabbed Fowler, and on page 626 of the 2nd edition, 1965, he also whacked my knuckles. It has to be a defining 'that' clause as I have constructed it.
    Even Fowler acknowledges that "usage evolves itself, little disturbed by [grammarians'] likes and dislikes." pg 625 col 1.
    If I had a crow, I would eat it.