PANCHO: Cisco, you know, I can read in two languages at the same time with my eyes closed and standing on one foot.
CISCO: [laughing] Oh, Pancho!
PANCHO: [laughing] Oh, Cisco!
— from “The School Marm,” The Cisco Kid TV series, 1955
First things first. I’m aware of the hoary and generally sensible adage about picking on someone your own size. Even those who will agree with these remarks in principle could find themselves wincing. My chastening of an innocent schoolboy for his earnest, impassioned plea, in which he enjoins not only his fellow consuming beings — I mean, human beings — but also “the multinationals” to uphold the rules of English grammar, will be seen for exactly what it is: a hideous thrashing meted out on a crooked playing field. (Let me say right now, by way of defense or rationalization, that I take this kid quite seriously. He is, as will become clearer by and by, more or less me. That is, “I.”)
Someone of Albert Gifford’s brief years has only begun thinking about such things. And, it must be admitted, his opinions ring familiarly of my own misspent youth, in which my favored form of attack on parental authority consisted in round-the-clock correcting of their solecisms. “But Papa, ‘fruition’ does not refer even metaphorically to the bearing of fruit.” “Mama, surely you intended to say ‘enormousness,’ not ‘enormity,’ which means ‘serious crime.’” To read Mr Gifford’s recounting of his Tesco contretemps is to shudder with a mixture of self-recognition and self-contempt. Ontogeny recapitulates philology: at fifteen, passing through our Edwardian phase, we view the world through rose-tinted pince-nez.
Grammar fussbudgets nearer my own size, the ones I should be picking on, seem to have gone to ground. Or that’s not quite true; they haven’t vanished utterly. Many have retreated to the murmuring demimonde of forums and chatrooms, where even if you can find them you can’t reach them. Others have craftily adapted to anti-elitist pressures, wedging their whole project into a larger — and for them I would submit irrelevant — macroeconomic debate. Rather than simply confine themselves to hair-splitting over infinitive-splitting, these appear to have linked their tortured atavism to matters far graver: lethargic markets, social destabilization, deterioration of values. Grammar, then, as metonym for cultural probity.
As for young Gifford, I have no idea how he validates his expertise or where, if expertise is the right word, he came to possess it. As I say, he’s a kid; he’s fifteen. There may be pimples and a clompy stride, Double-Decker wrappers under the bed. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to cut him some slack. That he was able to think a thought at all, moreover to convey that thought in reasonably clear language, we should perhaps acknowledge as a cheery and welcome gift. Or should we? As another hoary adage cautions, it’s not the gift; it’s the thought.
(I do realize, too, that at fifteen we tend to get ahead of ourselves. At about that same age I once took a train from King’s Cross, London, north to Hull to drop in on Philip Larkin, whom I fully expected to genuflect before my great insights into the historical relationship between The Angry Young Men and The Metaphysical Poets. He did not. Instead, with feigned avuncular concern and a derisory pat on the shoulder, he immediately began helping me to pore over railway tables for south-bound trains that would return me as soon as possible to King’s Cross. “So, Phil,” the protégé wise-cracked, “will I pass an odeon, a cooling tower, and someone running up to bowl?” No answer came. One scathing eyebrow arched above inch-thick specs.)
My question to the lad is this: which rules, whose? And where did the little buggers come from? Are they not, as it now seems to me, merely the inventions of harmless drudges who, having no better outlet for their prescriptive (and proscriptive) fiddle-faddle, scoff at our sentence adverbs and terminal prepositions? Surely one tip-off that no such rules exist — or, if they do, not in a way that can be depended on as immutable policy — is the unnerving fact of there being several differing and competing sets of them, along with much sniffy dudgeon as to which of these sets of rules has earned the upper hand.
For in fact there are rules and there are rules. As it crops up in Gifford’s rubric “basic rules of the English language” the word means something like “edicts” or “statutes.” This presupposes a notion of inviolable formalization. Which is to say, standardization. It says that they are fixed in perpetuity and enforceable by empowered — though never quite named — autocrats. (In France, where English is sometimes spoken but seldom understood, these autocrats actually do have names, and the names have belonged for the most part to some paunchy old crapulous white guys elected by … themselves.) The other meaning, inhabiting a more scientific category, refers to empirical information about language as it is employed in the real world. When contemporary lexicographers and specialists in linguistics use the word “rules” it operates a lot like the word law in “Boyle’s Law of Gases.” Little more than observations, these rules, if we’re going to use that term, represent a sort of compendium, an anthropology, of verbal behavior occurring amongst living or once living English speakers. They are rules, then, in the sense of their having been repeatedly witnessed in use, cited as patterns, and codified formally (“descriptive linguistics” is the official, if somewhat shop-worn, catch-all for the discipline) only after having been extracted from active badinage — from gossip, letters-to-editors, and tweets; from novels, graffiti, and traffic signage; from billboards and greeting cards and post-it notes stuck to fridges.
Such patterns, once observed, may be applied post hoc as reasonably convenient directives based on reasonably predictive principles. If we wish to make a case for, say, hanging onto “whom” as an objective relative pronoun, even though, as Gifford genially concedes, very few of us these days use it except in formal prose, one reason for making this case would lie in the predictive nature of the inflexion. That “-m” (known to us insiders as a bound morpheme) buttoned onto the end of “who-” does indeed instantly reveal its special syntactic function. But since so many other factors within a given arrangement of clauses, nouns, pronouns, verbs, predicates, adjectives, articles, prepositions, and adverbs also signal that function, the withering “whom” isn’t terribly necessary for comprehension. (Our very similar relative pronoun “that,” technically different only insofar as its antecedent would typically be a thing or a phenomenon rather than a person, serves both the subjective and objective functions without the slightest compromise to our understanding.) The simple truth is that unlike many less evolved and less capacious languages — Latin, Attic Greek, German, and Icelandic for example — English is no longer significantly inflected, nor has been for several hundreds of years. What few quasi-inflexions remain (English is considered to be “weakly inflected”) are mainly either quaint echoes of a distant tribal tongue or semi-mangled imports from Norman French. Presently, much of our construing of parts of speech depends not on word endings but on word order. Tense, case, gender, mood, and even number may be indeterminate and unknowable except contextually. Somehow we manage quite well by that system.
The only other argument I can think of for perpetuating antiquities like “whom,” and for waging battle generally against idiomatic shifts in both written and spoken English, would take an aesthetic angle. This would be a much harder argument to derail, since its soundness would answer presumably not to verifiable premises but to intensity of feeling, or, as I might feel inclined to put it, taste. What comes to mind is Ruskin’s idea of the “stains of time,” a sense of history that remains, like a living vibrance, in patinas or dusty residues; and his reverent campaign against the mechanical vulgarities of the Industrial Revolution, which he believed to have rapidly undermined a much loftier virtue, that of beauty. (Actually, what comes to mind is Benjamin’s aura, but we can save that for later.) For someone like Ruskin, for whom expediency is always trumped by nuance of experience and by “variety” (a big category in his arsenal), the objective “whom” might be justified on the basis of beauty alone. Life without “whoms,” he might have said, is a less intricate, less charming, and therefore less authentic place: an erstwhile paradise that we shall never regain. In weaker moments I feel quite sympathetic to that position myself. Anachronisms connect us sentimentally to the past.
Indeed I could be said to be the very embodiment of this second kind of argument. The way I speak extempore, which is to say casually and habitually, sounds pretty much like what Gifford exhorts us to do purposefully, for moral reasons. While my English-on-the-ground is hardly perfect, not close, it is fairly similar to my written English. And my written English would, give or take the odd free-floating (though generally deliberate) non-finite clause, withstand the cavils of whole squadrons of bathrobed, Oreo-munching shut-ins.
Nor am I the only one. There may be dozens of us, hundreds, wandering about in the outside world, lisping fluently and with clubbable ease that high-table Mandarin of Jowett and Furnivall and Quiller-Couch. I suppose that Albert Gifford’s generation, if not Albert himself, must look on us as if we were the walking dead — zombies of an unusual and bygone caste, who, wobbly on Malacca canes, tumble softly into ha-has while citing langues d’oïl etymologies. (Someone to whom I showed an early draft of this piece asked, seemingly startled, if my fourth sentence — the one that began “My chastening of … ” — didn’t strike me as a bit of a tongue-twister. “What do you mean?” I shot back, ruffled. “Because it’s periodic? But that, lest you forget or indeed, if not, decry on principle its subordinate clauses and syndetic coordinations, which you evidently regard as dusty artifacts of the Late Restoration, is how I fucking talk!”) We terrify people, sure; but just as with zombies it’s our listless, mumbly persistence that frightens, not our power.
If once upon a time my own “expertise” felt like grounds for complaint against the abhorrent laziness of the masses (hoi polloi, as I might have called them then, very correctly — and very conspicuously — leaving out the redundant “the” ), nowadays the only credit I can give myself is for a sort of stylized performance. Yet to be honest even this precious-sounding demotion will merely lump me in amongst nostalgia buffs of every hue and stripe — burnt-out CEOs getting in touch with their inner Letterists by decamping to Saint-Germain; Confederate re-enactors of Pickett’s Charge huffing and puffing at the polyester transgressions of Union “Farbs”; DIYs upgrading suburban porches with fiberglass colonnades. (Another worrisome comparison could be made to a friend of my parents who would prattle ad nauseam about his antique Morris Garages C-Type, pretending not to recognize the vulgar appellation MG by which everyone else on the planet called it.) And while it’s true that I do feel some primal responsibility not to renounce or traduce the hieratic decorum of my fine speech, what’s different for me now is that my priestliness, admitting of its own intrinsic comedy, is a little less tangled up with preachiness.
So-called good grammar — with respect both to its punitive, fabulistic narrative and to its hectoring defenders — resembles any other kind of pseudo-religious fundamentalism. It constitutes a kind of creationist fantasy. To the extent to which an awareness of history or science intrudes at all, this could be represented, if we wished to have a little fun, by the sort of scriptural timeline that is notable for its fiercely promoted teleology and its rickety genetic fallacies. In the beginning was the word, and the word was made flesh in the form of William Bullokar. Bullokar’s seminal treatise Pamphlet for Grammar appeared in the Year of Our Lord 1586, with a remit unmistakable for its devout tone: “Mor is sayed in my Grammar at-large tuching the equiuocy in Wil, Wilt, and Would, som tym shewing wilingnes, Somme tym a commaundment, som tym a wishing mæntt by them.” (The other unmistakable thing is that, thanks to its frustrating, proto-Shavian orthography, the book is pretty exhausting to read.) Farther along, midway through the twentieth century, our Savior miraculously arrives: the Son of Strunk, cowlicked — if not thorn-crowned — and bearing not peace but a blue pencil. In His Sermon on the Mount of Vernon, He Be delivers many hard sayings, enunciating “the rules of usage and the principles of composition most commonly violated.” Finally, somewhere near the apocalyptic — and endlessly prophesied — conclusion of this timeline, we would find, I don’t know, Lynn Truss or Nevile Gwynne or some such, rapturously declaiming (O Modifier! O Brimstone! ) truths no less immemorial than the evil conspiracies of … climate change and same-sex marriage.
It is a timeline that would dispute, or perhaps I mean ignore, at least one salient and inconvenient fact: our language was not created but has evolved, just as extant species have evolved by natural selection from previous, long-extinct ones. That it has survived and flourished beyond the capacity of any other language that has ever existed either on Earth or in Babel — or even in China — is entirely because of, not in spite of, the ease with which it assimilates the vocabularies and conflicting patter of all human culture.
English succeeds, we might say, by defeating conformity, which, however convenient at times, has a way of nosing inexorably toward conformism. “I feel that the basic rules of the English language should be adhered to,” says Gifford, urgent and censorious, though not at all vicious. If the origin of his “should” seems fugitive, wherein its purpose might lie truly stupefies. I suppose Gifford himself would say that such rules safeguard and advance the cause of clarity. And clarity, by this Whorfian logic, would depend on precision — precision, however, in the slightly dreary sense of fastidiousness. Yet very few violations of these so-called rules exert any pressure against understanding, against comprehension. Even vast differences in local dialectal vocabulary barely confuse us. Wrist-slapping the hapless yob for his idiomatic “mistakes” can’t occur without first taking in the intended meaning. That is to say, the pedant never rails against something that he hasn’t perfectly well understood. In fact it is his comprehension that he invariably offers up as evidence. “Doubtless what the benighted speaker meant to say was … ” Yeah, OK, but what the benighted speaker meant to say wouldn’t be up for speculation unless what he actually had said was crystal clear. Hell, I too squirm at, say, transpositions of “masterly” with “masterful.” I too wince, hearing the numerically illogical “I’m one of those people who loves romance.” I too gnash the incisors for having lost “shamefast” to “shamefaced.” But while the squirming may be real, while the wincing and gnashing may be real, any pretense to misunderstanding could not but be phony.
It’s bad enough that pedantic grammarmongering tends to be little more than mischievous control of the idiomatic speech — not to say the lives — of the ordinary people who use it. Compounding that offense is a failure to give credit where credit is due: it is precisely from the locutions of “ordinary people” — their syntax, their usage, their grammar — that so-called proper diction emerges and always has done. In English, “good grammar” is simply routine and spontaneous language that has become over time not only conventional but seemingly lapidary. Seemingly. The adverb is crucial. Not a single thing that you or I have ever said, even as we believed ourselves to be speaking correctly, originated in some chiseled code of verbal conduct. All of it — including that beloved “whom” — comes from life, from breathing, gasping, farting, rioting, buggering, toasting, ranting, dithering humanity. If ordinary people and their ordinary speech-patterns were truly a threat to the solvency of our language, it might then make sense to lock down some rules. But they’re no threat at all; just the opposite. We should therefore accede to a self-evident truth: correcting people’s supposedly ungrammatical diction is nothing if not calling attention to our own factitious superiority. Having placed ourselves above the stammering heathen, we froth with pride. All too often, what we’re really interested in is punishment, which has little to do with communication. Still less with beauty.