Thursday, November 10, 2005

NBC features grammar and usage problems, but consider this...

NBC Nightly News recently featured a segment complaining about the decline of grammar. If they wanted to be technical, the reporters should have pointed out it is not English grammar that is changing so much as it is American usage. People, in general, often refer to any nonstandard usage as an error in grammar, however, and if a word means what the majority of users of that word agree that it means, then I suspect they mean that our “grammar” is changing.

Technically, however, grammar is the system of rules that describes how a language does operate. The changes that have NBC and so many people pulling their hair and complaining that what they hear and read are errors in grammar are actually errors in diction (word choice), spelling, and punctuation.

A child comes into the house after school, puffing, and says, “I runned all the way home.” Depending on the age of the child, we smile or cringe. A kindergartner probably gets a smile. If the student is a high school senior, listeners may condemn the school for failing to teach “correct grammar.” To repeat, technically, the “error” is one of usage, not of grammar.

The rules of grammar explain that in a construction such as the home runner’s, the subject comes first, a past tense form of the verb second, and a phrase telling where he or she “runned” comes last in the sentence. The child has the sentence structured correctly. The problem is an incorrect form of the past tense. “Runned” is a nonstandard usage, but who will argue that it is not past tense?

The irregular verb “run, ran, (has, have, had ) run” was not used, perhaps, because the speaker doesn’t yet understand irregular verb forms, or because his or her parents have taught “runned” by example, or maybe the speaker has automatically made the language more regular than it was when an irregular verb form long ago worked itself into the language as the standard.

There are probably few people who could not make a list of personal pet peeves or “errors” they read or hear that upset them. What is interesting to consider is that no two lists would be identical. One person’s error is apt to be another’s usage.

Our language has changed considerably since Beowulf first angered his mother by mispronouncing “Hrothgar,” leaving off the sound of the “H.” Usage in Chaucer’s day differed considerably from what most agree as standard English today. I would bet that each change from the language of “The Canterbury Tales” was considered at first to be an error. Fifteenth Century language purists no doubt thought people who deviated from the standards of old Geoffrey were corrupting the English language.

Almost no one uses the language as Shakespeare did in the Seventeenth Century, either. Again, the usage changes were probably condemned as errors when each was first used. Usage has changed considerably, but the rules of grammar have changed little in centuries.

We don’t even use the language as Thomas Jefferson did. The Author of the Declaration of Independence capitalized every Noun in all his Writing, for Example. Today’s purists might red mark those “errors.” Many of Jefferson’s expressions and word choices would sound quaint in this century.

Some “errors” of today are so common that most people do not recognize them as nonstandard usage. They may someday be listed as standard. In the holiday season rushing toward us, we will soon hear, and perhaps sing, “I’ll be home for Christmas.” The rules of grammar say that the verb “be” in all its forms is “intransitive” and, therefore, takes no object. What follows the verb “be” is, grammatically, a “predicate nominative,” a word in the sentence predicate that renames the sentence subject in the nominative case, not the objective case of an object, because “be” takes no object. Do you understand that? Or, in nonstandard English, “Got that?”

Well, you had it. In every grade from fifth on. And it appeared on test after test as one item of many. It is an item most students always have missed. But there are enough other items on the test that pupils of all ages can miss the predicate nominative question each year and still pass.

Still don’t get it? O.K. Technically, according to the rules of grammar which so many critics think they believe should be mastered, “I’ll be home for Christmas” means that for Christmas, I shall be a home. “I’ll be home” is the same grammatical construction as, “I’ll be president.”

“Home” and “president” are nominative case words within the predicate renaming the nominative case subject, since they come after the intransitive verb “be.” To be grammatically correct, according to our intended meaning, then, we should sing and say, “I’ll be AT home for Christmas.” Of course, few people believe the sentence actually means what the grammatical construction claims. Since the word “at” is not needed for comprehension, most never will include the preposition.

Nor will we eliminate the contraction “I’ll” and replace it with the past standard “I shall” or “I will.” Contractions were condemned as corruptions not many years ago, when one considers the long history of language. The meaning of “I’ll be president” is simply too far-fetched to discuss, though it is grammatically correct.

You come into the house, and a significant other says, “You had a phone call a few minutes ago. I don’t know who it was.” Your response? “What did they want.” It probably sounds more like, “Whudday want?” But you mean, “What did he want,” or, “What did he or she want?”

The rules say that “they” is plural and should not be used to refer to one person, a single caller. But nearly all do use “they” that way. If the first grammar/usage books had not been written in the middle of the Eighteenth Century, but were being written today, then our nonstandard usage asking about the one caller as “they” would be recorded as standard.

Many of us remember something about using “I” with that old bugaboo “be” in statements such as “It is I,” and as part of a compound subject, “He and I shall leave today,” not “It is me,” and, “Me and him are gunna go.” But we often fail to understand why the “I” usage has been called standard. Many, therefore, transfer the usage from that intransitive verb “be” sentence and say things like “Between you and I,” instead of the standard, “Between you and me.” I have seen “Between you and I,” listed in one recent dictionary as, “alternate usage.” That means it may be on the road as a change to a new language usage standard.

The NBC broadcast included an amusing and technically correct, but funny sounding, “Woe is I,” rather than our common usage, “Woe is me.” After “is,” a form of the verb “be,” use nominative “I” not objective “me.” Remember?

French language rules are different. “C’est Moi” is correct and translates literally, “It is me.” Does that mean the French people are more objective about usage? Non.

I also hear constructions such as, “She gave the tickets to Mary and I.” That seems a clear violation of the rule stating one should use objective case (me) as the object of a preposition (to) and not transfer the “Mary and I are going” nominative construction to be the objects of a preposition.

My English teacher and Jefferson, Shakespeare, and Chaucer might list that as a pet peeve. Beowulf probably would merely grunt, “Huh?” Some sounds haven’t changed.

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11/10/2005 8:48 PM  
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11/10/2005 8:48 PM  
Anonymous whetstone said...

Cute examples to make your point that the language keeps changing. I don't mind changes in general, but those that muddle precise communications either prove I can't keep up or are true corruptions of language.

11/11/2005 10:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So what are your pet peeves?

I include all the people whose vocabularies are so bankrupt that they insert "like" and "you know" and "know what I mean?" in every sentence they stumble through.

11/12/2005 4:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How about people who cannot pronounce "nuclear"?

11/13/2005 11:52 AM  
Blogger Dana said...

It seems to me there are six categories of pronunciation variations that may bother others.

One is simply not getting the sounds of the letters or syllables "right" or in the right order according to accepted phonics.

A second is putting a letter or syllable sound into a word where there is no letter or syllable in the spelling of the word.

Third is removing a letter or syllable from a word's standard spelling/pronunciation.

Fourth is pronouncing words in alternative ways that seem almost acceptable based on the large number saying them in those ways.

Fifth are the regional accent differences that may grate on the sensibilities of those from other regions.

And sixth are combinations of the first five.

Bush, and others, who insist on saying "NUCULER" for "nuclear" are removing a sound and not getting other sounds "correct." Many people say "REAL-A-TOR" for "realtor," but we hear little criticism of that similar "error." It makes one think that those deriding Bush for "nuculer" have other problems with the man that are more serious than his pronunciations. In fact, many of those critical of his mispronunciation put a letter "R" in Washington, pronouncing it as "WARSHINGTON." Even Tom Brokaw does, and I have heard no criticism of him for that.

It seems to me that about half the populatioon refers to the state of Colorado as "Col-o-rod-o," and the other half say "Col-o-rad-o." That may be an example of my number four. "Hal-o-ween," and Hollow-een" is another.

A friend in "Hot-fud," Connecticut, pronounces my name as "Dainer." Another friend from East Tennessee almost rhymes her pronunciation with the word "hyena." Die-eena." She would pronounce "hyena" as "hah-eena," by the way. I prefer the sound as "Day-nuh."

Perhaps we could cool our boiling blood if we were to see most of the variations in the sounds of spoken "Marekin English" as celebrations of our diversity, not as errors needing our personal attention.

11/13/2005 2:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What is the original and true language in the world? If one were to take the Bible as literal then at one time all people spoke one language until they committed a big sin or trying to make a tower to the heavens. Then the language was scrambled. Now it seems to me that as we try to make one language even in one nation such as America we are confounded by multipls dialects that seem like a different language. What great sin of ours is causing that to happen?

11/13/2005 7:59 PM  
Blogger Dana said...

The operative word in your response to my post is "IF."

There is little more to say, for there is so much evidence to discredit your suppositions, that your IF makes them fiction, indeed.

11/13/2005 9:12 PM  
Blogger IbaDaiRon said...

Hello. Actually, home in "I'll be home for Christmas" is an adverb, I believe, meaning "at home". (Compare "I'll be there at 3:00.") I'm not sure what "I shall be a home" is supposed to mean, unless followed by something along the lines of "meet for desolation."

Io fei gibetto a me de le mie case.

11/16/2005 5:28 AM  
Blogger Dana said...

I like your explanation of "home" being used as an adverb. When our language does not fit the rules perfectly, we often bend and say there are exceptions, words used more than one way, etc. That often solves the strict grammar interpretation nicely.

It does seem to be another example of the contrary nature of English, deserving of a smile, too. "He went home," then, is an example of "home" as an adverb telling where. "He went to his home," is an example of home used as a noun, object of the preopistion "to."

My tenth grade teacher years ago explained that in the example of "He went home," the preposition was "understood." Was she copping out? If she were right, could we not argue that "I'll be home" also has an understood preposition? Amusing, but probably not.

Thanks for your visit and explanation.

11/16/2005 3:09 PM  
Anonymous Ogden Smapp said...

I once befuddled my English instructor by using the phrase "more better" (which I acknowlege is incorrect). She told me (in an attempt to deny me the use of the phrase) that if I could identify which part of speech it was, that I could use it informally in her class.

I pondered for a moment and told her that I believed it was an "Intermediate superlative".

Sha about choked, but was a good sport and allowed me to use it in conversation, but not in assignments. :D

My personal hot button is "should have went". I have seen presidents of companies write that in business letters. (Grrrrr!)

12/10/2005 3:59 PM  
Blogger Dana said...

Intermediate superlative seems inspired to me. I also chuckle at the creativeness in Missouri places, for example, where some say, "Well, you might could do that."

A teacher of mine, upset at a wrong answer, once wrote on the chalk board, "BE is never the subject of a sentence." I asked, as innocently as I could pretend, what the subject was of the sentence she had written.

Thanks for your comments.

12/10/2005 9:22 PM  
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