Life’s Lessons Learned
In the first article at this blog site we made the point that “The American gusto for improvisation fosters innovation….” So far we have discussed a few “undesirable” innovations which we think may be attributed to US influence. However, there are also American changes (by which we can only mean changes during this age of American supremacy) that, one thinks, have rather facilitated ease of expression in English. A useful language is a living creation and so it must evolve with time. In contrast, the Latin sentence structure, grammar, syntax, and vocabulary that I studied in high school were unchanged from Cicero and Virgil thousands of years before my time; being fossilized in that manner may be one reason Latin is dead!
As we celebrate our independence this July it is fitting at this point to “celebrate” some of those beneficial changes in English that may be due to US influence. I expect some readers can point out more such changes (and if we disagree with them we can at least debate the point!). So, please weigh in with your comments. Just remember that our focus is on written (not colloquial) English.
We saw an example of this kind of positive change under a blog in this series entitled A FEMALE MAN. The example in question is the use of a plural pronoun (‘they,’ ‘them,’ ‘their’) to refer to a singular subject/object, as a neater alternative to employing the clumsier phrase: “he or she” (or, as the case may be, “him or her”). Thus, we now say “If anyone disagrees let them speak their mind,” instead of the more correct but rather repetitive construction: “If anyone disagrees, let him or her speak his or her mind.”
PLACING A PREPOSITION
In my high school days you were not permitted to end a sentence with a preposition. In those days, you could not say “This is the house I was born in”; you had to say “This is the house in which I was born.” It took the singular authority of Sir Winston Churchill to make the tidier version (“…house I was born in…”) acceptable; now we all use it. Another useful simplification made acceptable by Churchill is “This is me…” instead of “This is I….” Those two examples are mentioned by the renowned linguist Charles Berlitz in his book, NATIVE TONGUES. (BTW, Berlitz holds the interesting view that as a language matures and spreads its reach, it also acquires simpler structure and becomes less likely to differ in form as you go from one place to another. The emergence of local variations is of course what produces dialects, which may in turn become distinct languages eventually.)
A similar “No-no” that existed in my day but not anymore is splitting the infinitive. The last sentence in the mission statement of Star Trek is: “To boldly go where no one has gone before.” However, in the generation before Star Trek, that sentence would have been considered ungrammatical. Why? Because “boldly” appears between the two parts of one verb that is in the infinitive tense: “to go.” In other words, that Star Trek mission statement split the infinitive. The accepted formulation then would have been: (1) “Boldly to go…” or (2) “To go boldly.” Note that in this particular example all three versions of that sentence are equally concise. In some cases, however, the proper sentence structure becomes less tidy if we cannot split the infinitive. Let’s see one such case.
Consider the sentence: “It is important to review all available evidence before you judge.” The infinitive here is “to review,” and because it is a transitive verb it has an object (which happens to be not just one word but an entire phrase: ‘all available evidence”). If we must emphasize the need for carefulness in considering the evidence, we can now say: “It is wise to carefully consider all available evidence….” But in my youth that infinitive (to consider) could not be split, and the proper construction was (1) “It is wise carefully to consider all available evidence…” (with the adverb before the infinitive), or (2) “It is wise to consider all available evidence carefully …”(with the adverb coming long after the infinitive).
The lesson here is: Splitting the infinitive can make a sentence more concise and compact.
I keep referring to my high school days because my formal education in non-scientific topics ended there. All the English language communication skills I ever learned was learned there. I did take a few college courses in English language and literature, but they really only repeated and reinforced my high school curriculum, which was sound.
My high school literature teacher was not a strong believer in adverbs. He considered them perhaps the most redundant of the eight parts of speech. And, though I like adverbs, my adult experience tends to vindicate that teacher of mine. In connection with my scientific writing I found that technical editors did not like adverbs: They thought adverbs ‘colored’ and skewed things and thus rendered scientific narratives somewhat less objective; and the general editors who have handled my non-scientific books do not like “qualifiers” in general (a category that includes adverbs) and always want to minimize the use of them.
Still, we know that adverbs serve a useful function: an adverb modifies a verb, an adjective, or another adverb. A good many adverbs (one might say the majority of them) are derived by affixing “ly” after an adjective (kindly from kind, etc.). Therefore, we tend to consider a word an adverb if it ends in “ly.” But one cannot rely on such inference because there are some words adjectives that end in “ly”. I used to think that likely, timely, leisurely, cowardly, (dis)orderly, etc. were always adjectives. So, while nearly all Americans say “It is likely true…” I used to say “It is probably true….” I now accept sentences like: “You will timely submit reports to us”; “Walk orderly behind the teacher”; “Walk leisurely to school” (with timely,” “orderly,” and “leisurely,” etc. used as adverbs. Thus I can now say “The cowardly lion spoke cowardly to the Wizard of Oz,” (using “cowardly as both adjective and adverb in the same sentence). I am learning, and I’m also beginning to see why the use of adverbs is waning.
Of course one mustn’t think that those stiff old rules were always obeyed rigidly by every writer. Some classic authors of past centuries sometimes ignored some of the straight-jacket rules of grammar and syntax: They had acquired enough authority to assert their independence of mind. What has changed in recent times is that the rules are now being disobeyed by many serious and knowledgeable writers, rather than by just a few masters.