Words, Words, Words.

The globe pontificates | June 13, 2009

There was a little article in Ideas section of this Sunday’s Boston Globe, complaining about people who insist on grammatical correctness.


I agree with them that language changes over time, that use determines meaning and that language is fluid. I also agree that a lot of the people complaining don’t know what they’re talking about (like the people who, when you ask, “Do you want to go out with Tom and me?” insist that you should have said, “Tom and I.” I isn’t inherently more correct, it depends on whether it’s the subject of the sentence or an object).

What I disagree with, however, is their general sentiment of, “get over it” or, as the title of the article puts it, “Thou shalt not worry about it.” Just because good grammar is a complicated pursuit, doesn’t mean it isn’t a worthwhile one. A desire to implement and enforce rules may be the driving force of some grammarians, but there are those of us who are interested in the rules as a means to an end. What is that end? Why, first and foremost, communication. If everyone uses whichever words and word order he or she chooses, a lot more people are going to die in easily avoidable accidents, because “Look out for that tree branch!” means something different to the speaker then to the listener. If a husband’s response to, “Do you love I?” is, “What?” then not only the marriage but the propagation of the species is at stake. Communication is difficult enough without throwing away all language rules. Just look at what happened at the tower of Babel.

Communication, then, is paramount, but the true lovers of language are not interested only in clarity, but in beauty. In Elements of Style White tries to get at the bottom of the power of Thomas Paine’s phrase, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” (My favorite alternate phrasing that White suggests: “Trying times these are, soulwise.”) There is a poetry in the simple act of communication that language can either embody and express or inhibit. Any grammarian worth her salt is concerned not simply with following the rules, nor only with communicating clearly, but also with pushing language to the peaks of eloquence, power and beauty of which it is capable.


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    "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

    "The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "Which is to be master? That is all."

    Polonius: What do you read, my lord?

    Hamlet: Words, words, words.

    Words are live things that may be variously employed to various ends. ~George MacDonald

    About Jessica and Proofwriting

    I am a freelance writer and editor. Ever since I can remember I've been fascinated by language: Its power, its nuance, its rules, and the exceptions to the rules. This blog is a place to share my fascination and to connect with other language lovers.

    If you are looking for an editor for your article, paper, grant proposal, novel manuscript or anything else, click here for more information about hiring me.

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