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Breakdown in Communication – Washington Free Beacon


Linguist Ellen Jovin put up a table outside an exit to the 72nd Street and Broadway subway station in New York City in September 2018 and allowed pedestrians to ask her grammar concerns. In Rebel with a Clause, she describes her first query as a heated “spousal apostrophe quarrel.” Most people would have folded their table and gone home, but Jovin and her husband Brandt decided to take the show on the road. They may have provoked spousal apostrophe squabbles in Hawaii, Alaska, and Connecticut by now.
Rebel with a Clause is a valuable primer in correct use parameters, but it is also a state-of-the-nation report on the use of American English. Jovin observed that, despite political differences, concerns of language brought people together in courteous and joyful interactions. She also saw that they have a lot of inquiries. Forget about weighty topics like direct objects, appositives, and the ideal way to utilize a semicolon. The majority of her clients struggle with the fundamentals and are frequently humiliated by their confusion.
“The boundaries of my language mean the limits of my world,” Wittgenstein stated. Being limited in language means being limited in the world, because language is an unseen net that separates us from the rest of the world. When the net is torn or gaping, words and things fall apart; like Hamlet, we discover that our sense of self is enhanced yet unsatisfactory. Repairing the net mends the ripped fabric of reality and allows us to throw it further. A resolved query, according to Jovin, provides “therapeutic calm” as well as increased social confidence.
In Boulder, Colorado, she comforts a wounded sixth-grade sentence diagramming survivor. Gary is 45 years out of high school in West Virginia, doesn’t know what an adjective, conjunction, or pronoun is, and doesn’t care. Meanwhile, Gale from Red Cloud, Nebraska, remembers her eighth-grade teacher’s Friday afternoon grammar games fondly, and talks about “connecting verbs” (“I am hungry”) and prepositional phrases (“of the people,” “across the street”).
Teachers no longer pay close attention to grammatical and spelling problems. Instead, they rely on the spellchecker. Jovin’s fieldwork indicates that teachers are making millions of us appear silly by neglecting to teach the essentials. Hal, a businessman in Decatur, Alabama, gets the words “accept” and “except” mixed up. Tara in Venice Beach gets “affect” and “impact” mixed up. Nobody appears to understand the distinction between “further” and “farther.” Then there’s the tangle of misunderstanding and wrath that is the lie/lay distinction.
Present: I place Jo, and she places the book. Jo lies to me as she lies down.
Jo put the book down when she lay down. She lay there and lied to me as I laid her down.
It’s no surprise that folks are perplexed. Merriam-Webster is also not a fan of the further/further difference. Neither does our most popular dictionary assist users who are having difficulty with foreign words. Rather than teaching users on the use of the cedilla and tilde, Merriam-Webster promotes confusion by allowing “facade” for “façade” and “pinata” for “piata,” despite the fact that “façade” with a hard “c” may cause offense (“fuckade”) and “piata” without a tilde will make you appear stupid. The latter is significantly worse.
Native English speakers all across the world struggle with foreign terms, because if you speak English, you can always refuse to learn another language. This conflict has taken on a patriotic dimension in America, so I doubt much can be done about it now. Noah Webster’s dictionary was meant to separate American English from the Old World, and his assault on etymology was successful. Because American English was cut off from its roots, it evolved independently; American English cannot explain itself in the same way that other Englishes can (and they include the English of India, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa).
Webster coined the term “false pals,” indicating that a pedophile is someone who has an illegal fondness for bicycle pedals. This was unusually philistine, given that the official architecture of the new Athens was based on Greek precedent. His assault on French etymology and its deeper Latin roots also burdened his countrymen with unnecessary differences like “canceling” and “cancelling,” “traveled” and “traveled,” and the resulting discomfort about which is correct. (According to the American Heritage Dictionary, both; according to the rest of the world, “cancelling” and “traveled.”) Why term it “tendinitis” if the pain isn’t coming from your tendon? But, if everyone says sherbert, why not use the Turkish and Persian root sharbut and write sherbet?
Kara from Martha’s Vineyard used this condition to justify naming her daughter “Pammella.” When Pammella complains—which she does frequently because no one can pronounce her name correctly—Kara responds with two words: “Scarlet Johansson.” Pammella’s given name is derived from Greek via English (meli means “honey” in Greek), although Scarlet’s surname is Germanic. Would Baywatch have been a success if its female lead had been Pammella Andersson? Perhaps; none of us are familiar with David Hasselhoff’s surname. Shakespeare performed an excellent job despite the lack of regular spelling. Scandinavian headbangers chuckle at the silly umlauts in Motörhead’s name, while Tommy Lee’s band’s moniker, Mötley Crüe, is more clever than any of their songs. If you read it as written, it’s pronounced “Mertley Crerr.”
In a dialogue, utility is most important. However, on the page, utility entails grammatical discipline. Nothing separates people more than the Oxford comma. It is also known as the serial comma and is inserted before the final item in a list or before “or.” It is named after the house style of Oxford University Press. The Chicago Manual of Style deems it essential; another example of how American English retains 18th-century customs that British English has mostly abandoned (only servers in England address you as Ma’am and Sir). However, the Associated Press Stylebook, which governs much newspaper usage, advocates only using it for clarity. This is useless since clarity is frequently subjective.
According to Jovin, the Oxford comma is “one of the emotional hot-button topics of our time,” most likely because it clarifies more than grammar. A woman in North Dakota claims she was branded a “coastal elitist” for discussing the Oxford comma. Bethany, a librarian in Flagstaff, Ariz., admits to having a “lifelong attraction” to it, Charles in Salt Lake City admits to defending its honor in a “knock-down, drag-out fight” with a friend, and Samuel in Chicago was fired as a copywriter for defending it, but a rapper in Bozeman, Mont., says “do away with it completely so there’s no confusion.” He meant uncertainty about whether to utilize it, not uncertainty about how to use it. The O.C. isn’t attractive, and as the rapper may have realized, it can limit your rhythmic options and make a line land too heavily, yet

it’s occasionally necessary:

We invited the strippers, as well as JFK and Stalin.
We invited the strippers, as well as JFK and Stalin.
JFK and Stalin are invited together with the strippers in the first examples. JFK and Stalin are the strippers in the second. It’s more difficult to say whether an O.C. is required here:
My horse is an excellent judge of character, and my cat is an excellent judge of tuna.
My horse is an excellent judge of character, and my cat is an excellent judge of tuna.
No, says Jovin. This is a succession of individual clauses, not a list (groups of words that can stand alone as sentences). However, rules can only go you so far. Appositives (substitutes) are classified as restrictive (with commas) or nonrestrictive (without commas):
Mr. Smith, my supervisor, is a pain.
Mr. Smith, my coworker, is a hassle.
In Sante Fe, Jovin discovers that an appositive and an Oxford comma, the grammarian’s belt and braces, can act against one other:
My mother, my first Spanish teacher, and my sister were invited.
Is her mother her first Spanish teacher as well? Is she inviting two or three people? Those of us who were taught to avoid the Oxford comma at all costs would have no issue here:
My mother, my first Spanish teacher, and my sister were all invited.
The same is true for what Jovin refers to as “strange plurals.” I taught (learned?) in school in England that the Latinate nouns “media” and “data” are plurals of “medium” and “datum,” hence they take plural verbs: The media are lying to us. However, in the United States, the media lies and their statistics is inaccurate. However, as Jovin points out—and this had never occurred to me—no one in the United Kingdom says, “These pasta are fantastic.” Manchester United, as a sports team, is overrated in England, whereas it is underrated in the United States. However, in both the United States and the United Kingdom, a collective noun such as the armed services accept plural verbs: The armed services are plagued by political correctness. And no one, not even Merriam-Webster, knows whether the plural of mongoose is mongooses or mongeese. Obviously, the latter.
The only solutions are to learn lists of irregular usages or to allow all usages, as Jovin suggests. I would argue that while forcing children to memorize unusual usages may appear snobbish, failing to inform them about how their variation usages would be perceived turns correct usage into a class marker. The credentialed doctor refers to a bacterium, whereas the patient refers to a single bacterium. The nuclear scientist talks about noo-clear weapons, whereas the man with the nuclear football, at least in George W. Bush’s case, talks about the nucular choice.
Having said that, Jovin’s arguments for free usage are almost always practical and reasonable, especially when it comes to speech. You may begin a sentence with “because.” Why? Because it does work on occasion. For inanimate objects, you can use “whose” as the possessive form, as in “a pickup truck from whose bed a nice woman was selling maize.” Why? Because English lacks a specific possessive form for “which,” and because “whose” sufficed for Ralph Ellison, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Virginia Woolf, and Evelyn Waugh, it’s good enough for the rest of us.
Grammar norms are altered by custom. It was once considered incorrect to use “they” if the antecedent (the word or pronoun it refers to) was singular. Today, “they” is often used as a colloquial and more formal replacement to “he or she.” This grammatical error rarely puzzles the reader. However, a more contemporary twist, the blending of gender identities, can easily confound the reader. Consider a narrative in which every character is a they, with no hes or shes. It’s not going to work.
This leads us to the crux of Jovin’s issues: the prescriptivist/descriptivist divide. Prescriptivist grammar is formal, and it is defined by a small group of grammarians. Descriptivist grammar serves a purpose and is defined by democratic usage. Split infinitives are grammatically correct, but they can be inelegant. However, the meticulous prescriptivist who always avoids splitting will occasionally produce inelegant page contortions. Furthermore, avoiding splitting when speaking can hamper communication, which is the purpose of the exercise.
We are obliged to strike out on our own. Jovin presents examples and quizzes to illustrate the bare minimum of principles, and she also demonstrates how to be spontaneous or informal without making mistakes. Her journeys offer a caring guide to the everyday difficulties of communication and the unneeded stumbling blocks we create by failing to do our research. Her solutions are also sympathetic. Jovin suggests that we remember both our manners and our grammar.
Jovin advises us to never correct other people’s usage (a habit colloquially denominated by the compound noun, part of which is a proper noun, “grammar Nazi”). You can answer “How are you?” with “I’m fine” or “I’m fine,” but saying “thank you” after either is probably more significant. Also, avoid texting terminology when communicating with folks over the age of 30 and other geriatrics. Reading Rebel with a Clause will undoubtedly improve your writing and speaking skills. It may also help you become a better person.
Ellen Jovin, Rebel with a Clause: Tales and Tips from a Roving Grammarian, Mariner Books, 400 pages., $26.99
Dominic Green is a Royal Historical Society and Foreign Policy Research Institute fellow. The Religious Revolution: The Birth of Modern Spirituality, 1848-1898 is his most recent work.

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