Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Comfort of Grammar

Now, there are two words most of us never expected to see together in one phrase. There's the old saying about grammarians being dead from the waist down [ask your momma when you're asking her where babies come from.  Answer: "From your mom or something else." A line from my TV favorite commercial (from Kaiser Permanente)-- the little kid with the big ears slays me every time.]. Did you notice, faithful blog readers, what I did there, putting the parens mark [(  )] inside the bracket mark { [  ] }. How did I know to do that? Answer: I guessed!  No, I relied on my knowledge of grammar! (And I think I did it correctly.)

As an English teacher and even into retirement, I find people ask me questions about grammar, like "Do I use 'who' or 'whom' here?" My answer depends on the rarity of the usage.  "Who" and "whom" are sometimes tough nuts to crack since their usage depends on their function in the sentence. ("Who" for subjective case, "whom" for objective.) That means you have to figure out the function of the word, which is difficult on the fly. That's why the distinction is disappearing, even among educated speakers. It's just too hard to come up with the right case, even with an educated speaker.

Language lesson: part of the problem stems from the first English grammars, put together in the eighteenth century. They were based on Latin grammars since Latin was regarded as a superior language. Latin has cases, so English has cases.  Latin is an inflected language, meaning the form of the word relies on its function in the sentence.  If the word is the subject of the sentence, say, it is in subjective case: "I did the deed."  If the word is an object, it uses objective case, "Just between you and me, I think hats with fascinators are strange."

The problem is that English is not a Romance language, derived from Latin. It is a Germanic language, closer to Dutch than to French, say. You may thank the Germanic tribes who swept through Europe following the collapse of the Roman Empire.  Add some French from the takeover of England by the Normans in the eleventh century and you have (more or less) English.

English as a Germanic language is a syntactic language, relying on word order to determine case. Anything to the left of the verb is subjective; anything to the right, objective. This can lead to buzzing in our ears. "It is I" is technically correct since "is" is a linking verb and the predicate nominative "I" is in subjective case, but it sounds stuffy.  "It's me" sounds natural and relaxed and follows the Germanic rules of objective form after the verb.  What a mess!

I try not to exercise my powers as a grammar policeman unless someone asks me. I think it's obnoxious to correct someone else's speech or writing unbidden. I have to admit, though, that my correction finger itches when I see something like "Stewed in it's own juices."  Ugh. You know.

In any case, I came here to talk about the comfort of grammar. I was writing along when I came up with this construction: "Here are the words to 'Creation Will Be at Peace'":. (Check out that single quote-double quote-colon-period sequence. Like a double play.) I couldn't remember if the colon went inside the quote or outside, so I pulled out my Warriner's Complete Course, 1973 edition.  There was the answer, on page 650, "Semicolons and colons are always placed outside the closing quotation marks." Here is where the comfort of grammar came in, knowing I could look up the correct use. I really did feel better.

I know this has been a post that only a mother could love, but I hope you enjoyed it somehow. Grammar and language are always changing (the distinction between "shall" and "will" is no longer in house),  which is a good thing. I'd hate to run around speaking Anglo-Saxon all the time.

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