18 February 2007

My Kingdom For An Horse

Like many people, as a child I learned that proper English grammar has us use the indefinite article a before any word that begins with a consonant sound, and we use an before any word that begins with a vowel sound.

Could someone please tell me when it became acceptable, or where it is written that the letter “h” is now to be treated as a vowel in any and all circumstances?

It was mildly annoying when the random twit would describe something as “an historic” event. Epic as that event may have been, it begins with the letter “h,” and we’re Americans. As such, the “h” gets pronounced, and it is properly “a historic event.” The Brits, having their own distinct pronunciations and accents, can get away with it; when they do it, its charming.

But more recently, more and more “h” words are being treated in such a way, and it’s getting to be more than a mild distraction. Writer Emily Rapp, during her interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air, refers to someone she met with “an hydraulic” prosthesis (≈ 15:00 mark). President Bush refers to Natan Sharansky as “an heroic” figure on the back cover of The Case for Democracy (perhaps the Texan from Connecticut has a bit of the Cockney in him).

I don’t know if the marketing and packaging geniuses who were behind “growing the economy” and “catalyzing growth” are responsible for this discordant nonsense, but it has to end.

And on the economy, while people can in good faith argue about whether it is the responsibility of the government (actively) to shepherd economic growth—the fact that its not a power given to the government by the people notwithstanding*—I think we can all agree on the fact that “to grow,” when not specifically dealing with vegetation or states of being, is an intransitive verb and can’t take an object, especially as one as big and unwieldy as the US or world economy. Nor can a company “grow its business.” I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve had to grit my teeth through a business meeting when some jackhole goes on about the importance of growing his business or his customer base. You can develop your business, you can increase your customer base; the English language is utilitarian enough with enough beautiful words that anyone should be able to express any sentiment accurately, clearly and correctly. Grow your tomatoes, grow grass, grow weary for God’s sake—I know I have—just stop using "to grow" as a transitive verb in business.

And while we’re at it: stop splitting your infinitives people. It’s simple really, “to verb” is a verb form; they are a happy couple, let them be together. I know some writers and writer’s guides’ tish-tosh over the old fuddy-duddies that keep bringing this up, saying that placing the adverb before or after the infinitive is clunky or “doesn’t flow.” Here’s an idea—drop the bloody adverb! Stop intensifying and modifying every sentiment. Just write, simply. Not too hard to do. One of the many (and I mean many) reasons I’ve stopped reading my local paper—especially the Sports page—is that I’ve gotten sick of reading that an athlete will be out for his injury “to fully heal.” I know I don’t have the qualifications it takes to be an editor, but wouldn’t it suffice to say “to heal.” I think the average joe can understand that the athlete isn’t resting up “to partially heal.” And, if nonsensical verbosity is your goal, what’s wrong with “to heal fully”? I mean, other than it being grammatically sound?
I have heard the argument that the ban on the split infinitive is a holdover from the 14th century, rooted in Latin—i.e.-that since the infinitive form of the verb in Latin (and most other Romance languages) is one word, and therefore “unsplitable,” we can’t do it now; that these are no reasons to prohibit our current writers from spilling their wisdom with too many adverbs twixt “to” and “verb.” Well, they’re perfectly sound reasons to me. If something has been a good rule of thumb for over six-hundred years, one that we can trace directly and logically to our lingua mater, one that has served William Shakespeare to William F. Buckley, then that works just great for me. And I think one of the many ways English teachers are doing a great disservice to their pupils is by not forbidding all but the most necessary adjectives and adverbs until high school—late high school.

Then again, I’m pretty sure I can go up to your average grade-school English teacher and stump him with the question, “What is a split infinitive?”

I’m also at a loss as to why it is now completely acceptable to use the third person plural pronoun with a singular verb, as in “when some jackhole goes on about the importance of growing ‘their’ business.” When you have a singular, gender-neutral antecedent, use the third person singular male pronoun, “he.” Is this because society is relentlessly and hopelessly sexist? No. It’s because of literary tradition and clarity. Literary tradition alone is reason enough to let this stand. As Jacques Barzun wrote on a closely related matter, “it is unwise to give up a long-established practice, familiar to all, without reviewing the purpose it has served.” And being sexist and clear is much more preferable than the unsightly “he/she,” “him &/or her” and the astoundingly asinine "s/he" constructions that I’ve seen. Or the politically correct writer who uses “she” without a female antecedent. Which sends this reader back to the beginning of the piece to see if I’ve missed something. I’ve since taken up the practice of dropping any article I’m reading where the author employs this technique of socially responsible claptrap. We’re going to reverse several centuries of women being treated like so much chattel by peppering our epistles with different pronoun construction? To quote Barzun further, “[t]here is after all an obligation to write decent prose and it rules out recurrent oddity or overinsistence on detail.”

And I think that’s the main crux of my rant. I think the internet, with the proliferation of web-logs and the explosion in e-mail use has increased greatly the amount that people are writing; which is a great thing. The writer, though, has an obligation to communicate clearly, and readers are right to demand that writers make themselves clear using “long-established practice[s], familiar to all.” And demanding that intransitive verbs not be given objects, singular verbs get singular pronouns (and only one of them at that), and that our verb forms be left alone in their natural habitats is not sexist, nor is it pedantic; it is the reader’s job.

I think people should be encouraged to write, often, about any old thing that strikes their fancy.

But please, people, write good. It ain’t that tough.

*Whether the authority to regulate commerce and to coin money encompasses authority to “grow” economies is also debatable. My thinking is that it just gives politicians something to talk about and generally screw-up.

1 comment:

Damien said...

"Leave out the bloody adverb" should be the title of a masters level writing course. And mandatory. Totally agree with your points and I am afraid of and for the books of the future!