Letter: There is no reining in grammar

No reining in grammar

To the editor:

Dorothy van den Honert's columns are always a source of stimulation, especially her most one of July 29 ("Talking grammar, and a little Trump.") Her concern about the spelling of the word "judg(e)ment" puts her squarely in the camp of those who believe English spelling should be phonetic, and English grammar should be regular. She thus joins such luminaries as Benjamin Franklin, Noah Webster and Theodore Roosevelt.

There have been some successes. Americans have omitted the French "u" in such words as "honor" or "valor." But by and large we retain many spelling oddities: all those "ght" spellings, as in "light," and "right." The attempts to pronounce such words phonetically would be frightful.

Unfortunately for the regularization camp, language in general, and English in particular, resisted such ordering since Caxton started setting type in 1476. He ended the phonetic spelling of English by, ironically, regularizing it while the pronunciations were still changing. Even now we in American drink tea ("tee") instead of tea ("tay"). Before Caxton, one could spell a word just as it sounded to the person. The result was a wide range of spellings, depending upon what dialect of English one spoke, and probably on one's hearing.

Samuel Johnson, the "Great Lexicographer," spelled the word "Judgment" in The Dictionary of the English Language (1755). The Oxford English Dictionary provides both spellings. The consensus among usage experts is that Americans tend to prefer the spelling without the "e" and the British prefer the spelling with the "e."

English grammar can be equally arbitrary. We all believe that the subject and the predicate of a sentence should agree in number: plural subjects with plural predicates, and singular subjects with singular predicates. At least I think that I am correct in asserting this fact, aren't I? Wait a minute. I just put a plural verb ("are") with a singular subject ("I"), and have not violated accepted English usage. Rationally I should return to the contraction of "am not" popular in the past. But Mrs. van den Honert may object to my use of "ain't."

As hard as we try, we cannot force grammar to follow prescriptive rules. But that is the beauty of language: it allows for infinite variety and subtle shades of expression. We would all be much poorer if we had to reject the imagery of the final two lines in Wallace Stevens' "Anecdote of the Jar":

"It did not give of bird or bush

Like nothing else in Tennessee."

There are ways to describe English grammar accurately, but the straightjacket of prescriptive grammar is both stultifying and futile.

William Irvin, Pittsfield


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