The King’s English

english

Be forewarned: This blog contains possibly mind numbing discussion of English grammar.

English is a magnificent language with a proud history. It was the first language in the western world to develop a literary tradition. It is thought to have more words than any language on earth. It is the only subject in school you are required to study every year.

So why is it people have so much trouble with English? I hear it misused daily just about everywhere I turn. Native speakers of the language don’t seem to know the fundamentals, things like subject-verb agreement, pronoun case or even the difference between words like its and it’s, your and you’re, and there, their and they’re.

It’s easy to just say people are ignorant or lazy, and that might partly explain it, but I think there’s more to it than that. The truth is that English is a difficult language to speak correctly.

Don’t believe me? Think you have a pretty good knowledge of the language? Consider this direct quote from Wikipedia, elucidating pronoun case, specifically the nominative, subjective and objective cases:

“Generally, when the term subjective case is used, the term objective is used for the oblique case, which covers the roles of accusative, dative and objects of a preposition. The genitive case is then usually called the possessive form and often is not considered as a noun case per se; English is then said to have two cases, the subjective and the objective. This view is an oversimplification, but it is didactically useful.”

Huh? Useful for whom? Not me, and I actually try to speak good English.

Don’t despair, though, or question your intelligence. It’s just that English is more convoluted than a barrel of snakes. It’s not your fault. There’s a logical explanation.

It’s because England is on an island. That’s an oversimplification, but that’s at the heart of it. When you live on an island, you get invaded a lot, in this case by succeeding waves of Celts, Germanic tribes, Romans, Vikings, Scots, Normans and more recently Indians and Muslims. Each of those groups brings with them their own language and mixes in some new words and new ways to say things.

The result, English is a Heinz 57 language, a mongrel, a hodge-podge, a combined effort. While other languages have managed to remain relatively linguistically pure, English has been inbred with half the languages in Europe. So while the rules of a language like say French are fairly straightforward, English grammar is like trying to make rules for a game which combines chess, poker and hopscotch.

Everything from spelling to syntax is inconsistent, because the rules jump around every time you come to a word or phrase that came from another language. The attempt to even formulate a set of rules for English is dizzying, given that you’re trying to make one size fit all.

That’s why English is considered one of the most difficult languages to learn. That’s why people who have been speaking the language since birth don’t understand it completely.

Being a bastard language leads to problems, springing from some awkward design features that invite people to misuse English. Here’s one example. If you look at one of the most common verbs in English, to be, there are contractions for is not and are not, and they are widely used. But there’s no contraction for am not. There just ain’t. Or, more to the point, there is ain’t, which is an attempt to fill in a gap in the language. Why isn’t there a contraction for am not? There should be one. Am’nt. Did the founding fathers of the language have a little too much to drink when making up the contractions? Isn’t this an obvious oversight? What the hell, language creators. Couldn’t you foresee we’d need a contraction for am not?

Here’s another one, which is causing people to have subject-verb problems out the wazoo. There’s a contraction for there is, but not for there are. So what are people doing? Since no contraction was provided, they now just use there’s for every situation. Having to say “there are” is just too much work. That extra syllable is exhausting. So now, there’s more and more “there’s” and hardly any “there ares.” But can you blame folks? Shouldn’t somebody back in antiquity, when all these rules were cast in stone, have created a contraction for there are? Couldn’t they have figured that one out? It’s not right that there’s a contraction for one and not for the other. It’s more than we can bear. We’d rather misuse the language than live with this design flaw.

And then there’s pronunciation. Imagine you’re trying to learn to speak English. You notice there are lots of words that end with –ough. It would only make sense to assume that –ough makes the same sound in all of them, and that they would rhyme, like rough and tough. After all, isn’t written language supposed to be representative of phonetics? But the other words ending in –ough vary in pronunciation, like cough, dough, bough, and through. The letters are the same. The sound isn’t. It’s perverse.

Don’t even get me started on spelling. The spelling of English words was apparently decided by the ancestors of Bret Favre. Spelling includes totally ridiculous ideas like silent letters, and a letter like Q that require a helper to function. The spelling of some words, like Wednesday, colonel, and island bear no resemblance to the way they are said. You’re asked to just accept the weird spelling with no explanation. Your burden to bear.

One of the reasons all this craziness exists is that there is no mechanism to reform English. The language is sacred, immutable, untouchable. Just about everything else changes– fashion, laws, scientific theory, lifestyles  –all are subject to change. But not grammar, spelling, and pronunciation.

It wasn’t always this way. Before dictionaries standardized the spelling of English words, there were variant spellings. Take the work ask. In the rural South of early America, an acceptable variant was aks, which is why African-Americans whose ancestors came from the South still say, “I aks him a question.”

The truth is that we’re stuck with the weirdness of our language. Learning the ins and outs of English is a lifetime study. It refuses to conform to any sensible organizational standard. It has more exceptions than a wealthy person’s tax filing. The rules make enigmas look simple. English teachers protect it like it’s Fort Knox.

It’s one of the last things we hold on to as a society as a hallmark of our past. The Anglo-Saxon words which form much of the core of the language– words like bed, dad, fart and stone –the simple words in daily use, have been passed down from one generation to the next, an inheritance from our forebears. English could be described as a monolith, a monument, a dowry, a sacred cow, a common connection to both our past and future. We’re both lucky to have it, and unlucky to have to put up with it.

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Why Texting Isn’t Sexy

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First off, this isn’t a young-folks-today rant. The fact that the younger you are, the more likely you are to text, is more about generational identity than anything else. Every group of humans, about the time they hit adolescence, look for some way to set themselves apart. To their credit, young people were the first to embrace the cell phone, a revolutionary tool that has changed everyday life.

But the obsession with texting, regardless of your age, is a backwards move to an older, more limited form of interpersonal communication. Simply put, written communication is the worst way you can choose to message someone.

I don’t mean to trash written communication. I love the form. I’m a writer, so I worship at that shrine. Of course, written words still work. So do film cameras, eight-track players and black and white TVs. But nobody uses those anymore because the newer stuff- digital cameras, digital music and HD TVs –are way better. By all logic, texting should be a horse and buggy, but instead it’s the SUV of messaging.

Texting, along with email and snail mail, has some serious drawbacks compared to calling someone up and having a live conversation. Here are the reasons why.

  • Written communication is a one-shot, one-way deal. If your message is ambiguous in any way, the receiver doesn’t understand it. On the other hand, in a conversation, if the receiver of the information doesn’t understand, he or she can ask for and get immediate clarification.
  •  Have you ever sent someone a written communication which included several questions you wanted answered, and then the response didn’t address those questions? Frustrating isn’t it? If you had asked the same questions in an oral communication setting, you could have not only expected immediate answers, you could have asked follow-up questions. That’s one of the big weaknesses of written communication.
  • Written communication has no non-verbal component. Non-verbal, things like facial expression, vocal tone, body language, how you dress, actually make up a larger portion of the message than the words, according to communication theorists. Of course, in a phone conversation, you don’t get all those non-verbal clues, but you still get some, like vocal tone, emotion, and accent. The more information you can gather from a message, the better the channel of communication. Because of its limitations, texting is the orphan of communication types.
  • There’s something called presence, which is to say people communicate differently in face-to-face than they do on the phone. Example: Have you ever said something vile about someone driving another car? Bet you have. You felt comfortable saying that awful thing about them because not only were you not in their presence, you figured you never would be. Because of presence, people are most cautious about what they say in face-to-face situations and least cautious in written messages. Phone conversations are in the middle, but still have more presence than texting.
  • Written communication is more formal and for that reason, writers can come off as pompous. Years ago, I worked at a newspaper, a pressure cooker every night trying to create the next daily beast. The news editor sometimes left notes about problems for the composing room manager. The notes often led to nasty confrontations. The solution? The news editor stopped writing notes and started having face-to-face conversations with the composing room manager. Nearly all of the conflict was defused.
  • Written communication is more impersonal. It’s used in situations that are not personal, like textbooks, advertising, signage, and business letters. Can writing be personal? Yes, it can, like a love letter for instance. But conversation is usually more personal, and writing generally less personal.
  • Written messages can be totally ignored. Do you respond to all the junk mail you get? Of course not. Do you respond if someone, even a stranger, speaks to you? Probably. Oral communication is harder to ignore. Ever send a text or an email and wait and wait for a reply which is delayed or never happens? Sure you have. That’s a negative aspect of written communication.
  • So if texting is a lesser form of messaging, why is it so popular that you see people doing it constantly, in stores, in cars, in restaurants– just about everywhere?Texting does have one huge advantage. You get to remain more isolated from the person you are contacting. One of the strangest things about the time in which we live is that while communication technology has advanced rapidly, which one would intuitively think would lead to people being closer, people are more cut off from other people than ever, and it is by choice, not because it has to be that way.
  • It is emblematic of a bigger problem, a breakdown in trust in society in general. In the dinosaur days of the old land line, back before caller ID, when the phone rang, you answered it, because it was likely someone you wanted to talk to. But that was before telemarketing, robo calls and heavy breathing callers. Now, everyone needs a layer of protection that didn’t used to be necessary.
  •  Finally, I’m not scolding anyone for texting, or for trying to be cool in general. If you want to wear your ball cap backwards, your pants hanging low, talk in buzz words, wear no-see socks and a hoodie, and check your smart phone every thirty seconds, that’s your right. But realize that texting is like traveling by hot air balloon. You may look really cool doing it, but it may be harder to get where you want to go.

Why the Mockingbird Probably Won’t Sing Again

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Everyone knows Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird is one of the most iconic novels of the twentieth century. So when plans for a sequel to appear in July were announced by Harper Collins, it was a bombshell, especially considering that Lee has not published a novel since the 1960 classic. Harper Collins is apparently counting on plenty of demand, announcing an initial print run of 2 million copies.

Titled Go Set A Watchman, the novel is not a new piece of writing by Lee. In fact, it pre-dates To Kill A Mockingbird. In this story, Scout is an adult, though it includes flashbacks to her childhood. It was those flashbacks that prompted the publisher to which the book was originally submitted to suggest to Lee that she write a complete new novel based on her character’s childhood. The result was To Kill A Mockingbird. The manuscript to the earlier novel was lost, but it was recently found, and now it’s a white hot literary property.

After a 55-year wait for a second novel, who wouldn’t want to read it? But it is that 55-year drought, along with some other long-held speculation, that makes the new novel suspect, and, maybe, a disappointment, though the final proof will be in the novel itself.

harperleeThe question that hangs over Harper Lee is why hasn’t she published more novels, given the monumental, legendary status of To Kill A Mockingbird? Her long silence has created the same kind of feeding frenzy that the promised new work from J.D. Salinger engendered. But that big market for her work could also be driving publication of a mediocre work.

As a writer, my best guess is that she didn’t publish because she couldn’t create anything that comes even close to To Kill A Mockingbird. But that just leads to another question. Why couldn’t she?

In fact, a whole bunch of red flags are raised by the publication of this early novel at such a late date.

First of all, if it was a good piece of writing, why didn’t the publisher it was first submitted to just publish it instead of basically suggesting that Harper Lee start over on a new book? It sounds like the publisher was trying to find a soft way to send a message that this novel wasn’t good enough. If it wasn’t good enough then, it probably still isn’t. If that’s the case, the novel is being published on the basis of its author’s reputation, not on the merit of the novel itself.

Second, after the sensational success of To Kill A Mockingbird, why didn’t they follow up with Go Set A Watchman? Harper Lee could have published just about anything at that point and a large audience would have read it. The fact that the publisher didn’t  apparently think it deserved publication, even though it was a sequel to the big book, speaks volumes (no pun intended).

Third, literary tastes and styles change. What was high art fifty years ago might not be a big splash today. That’s why I think when the delayed writings of J.D. Salinger appear, though they will be read with interest, they will not be the literary monoliths they could have been if they had been published decades ago as they should have been. The same is true of Harper Lee’s work. Even if Go Set A Watchman is great writing, which I doubt it is, its time may have passed and it may seem dated. Like most things in life, and in writing, timing is important.

Finally, there is the rampant speculation that To Kill A Mockingbird is a great work because it is a collaborative effort between imagesBRZ5BMJELee and Truman Capote. Capote was her childhood friend, confidante, and, many believe, an uncredited co-writer on To Kill A Mockingbird. The conspiracy theory is that because Mockingbird was a far more popular and acclaimed novel than any of Capote’s books, he was envious of her success, especially as she never fully acknowledged his contributions to the book. Mostly she has been silent, refusing all interviews.

The truth is, we will probably never know the extent of Capote’s involvement in the creation of Mockingbird, but given Lee’s dearth of writing for more than five decades, there will always be the suspicion that Capote was an integral part of the process that led to Mockingbird,

And there’s one final question I have to ask. Is the version of Go Set A Watchman coming out this summer the same one Lee originally penned, or has someone done what Capote did for Mockingbird, elevated the writing because it needed a serious rewrite?

So many questions. So few answers. But readers probably shouldn’t get too excited about the prospect of reading another Mockingbird. That bird may have already flown.