Word Nerd: Are Rules Only for Fools?

25 Apr

I love English. Even if I couldn’t tell you what the hell a dangling participle is, off the top of my head. Asked to define a split infinitive, I can only cite the Star Trek motto. Say orientated instead of oriented, however, and you will make me wince. But, if you were to say orientated in the middle of telling how you became a Harvard Lecturer in Planetary Sciences, I wouldn’t interrupt only to correct you.


Because of the number of years (we won’t say how many), that English and I have been trying to get along, I’m somewhat sensitive to its shapes (Is it verse? Is it prose? No, it’s spoken word!), its structures (which Lewis Carroll had no mind to mind), and its sounds (lead vs. lead, onomatopoeias). And maybe because of sheer habit, I find these elements both fun and useful.

But, imagine English to be an axis around which the world revolves. In the Arctic north, there are people who dread the freezing winds of grammar, the white expanses of syntax and spellings, the thin ice sheet that is pronunciation. In the Antarctic, we have the tribe called the grammar Nazis. They destroy people who misuse apostrophes, and hunt those who don’t know the difference between their, there and they’re. Their weapon of choice is sarcasm made very visible on social media.

Both these perspectives seem slightly off to me. Why treat English as merely a barren expanse of land, rather than an equatorial jungle, where you can constantly discover new species of flora and fauna? Nearly 5400 words are created every year – some are stolen from other languages, some new words are just consistent mistakes (nadder, napron, numpire became adder, apron, umpire), and some are simply invented (swagger, fragrance, nerd). A couple of decades ago, starting a sentence with and or but was unacceptable. Not anymore. What we all need to remember is that languages evolve. And if the language evolves, how can grammar stay behind?

However, I am not making an argument for chaos. If everyone chose to write and speak exactly how they pleased, the world would come to an end in less than the time it takes to spell Jabberwocky. Language is like a game and needs its rules – like grammar, syntax and spelling. These are bridges which help make language, and the larger world, meaningful.

And while it might be ok, someday, to use the word literally figuratively, it is not this day.

By Skendha Singh

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