usage

Standing on Formality

GrammarNazis_04

I was raised on the King James Version of The Bible (the good ol’ KJV). In addition to its spiritual tutelage, this translation quite nicely programmed my brain with archaic language structures, a blessing for which I am eternally grateful.

Because, apparently, the distinctions between thou/thee and ye/you are not all that easy to pick up or keep track of (to say nothing of the 2nd and 3rd person agreement markers on verbs).

My parents taught me to pray using thou and thee to address the Lord. It’s a custom in my religion, though members follow it to varying degrees depending on how comfortable they are with these archaic pronouns (and there’s certainly nothing wrong with addressing Him with the modern you). We even hear on occasion that use of this bygone form of address shows a heightened reverence and respect toward deity.

By its very nature, archaic language, especially that associated with religious texts, takes on rhetorical features of formality, respect, perhaps even antiquated stuffiness.

The thou/thee/thy/thine of yesteryear, however, was anything but formal.

In the Old English period, the distinction between thou/thee and ye/you (or þu/þe and ge/eow, as they then appeared) was simple. Thou/thee referred to one person. Ye/you referred to more than one.

(Fun fact: There was also a dual case of pronouns in OE—git/inc in the 2nd person—that served to address exactly two persons, but it was in decline long before the end of that era, with only 1st and 2nd person forms attested.)

The singular/plural distinction between these two sets of pronouns suffered a heavy blow in A.D. 1066. For all you non-linguist, non-historians out there, that was the year Guillaume le Bâtard decided he’d had enough of his derogatory surname and crossed the Channel. He slaughtered Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings, and called himself William the Conqueror from that point onward.

And he brought his Norman French with him, forever changing the linguistic landscape of the British Isles.

French, like English of yore, has distinct 2nd person singular and plural pronouns: tu and vous. There’s an added element to these pronouns, however: familiarity and politeness. If you are being polite, you always use the plural pronoun, vous. They even have specific verbs to request or correct pronoun usage:

  • tutoyer (“On peut se tutoyer?” = “May I address you with the informal tu?”)
  • vouvoyer (“Ne me vouvoie pas.” = “Don’t address me with the formal vous.”)

This familiar/polite distinction shows up in Middle English. Thou shifts from being merely singular to also indicating a close relationship. Ye picks up the slack for singular polite communication (and quickly gets absorbed into its object form, you).

And so begins the downward spiral of thou into obscurity.

Once politeness came into play, the familiar form fell out of use. It was already well into its decline in the 1520s when William Tyndale implemented it in his defiant English translation of the Bible. It was positively archaic in 1611 when the KJV was published. But since the King James scholars lifted their translation almost wholesale from Tyndale, its appearance there should shock no one.

Tyndale was a canny scholar, inspired, enlightened, determined, and far-seeing. Perhaps he used thee/thou/thy/thine simply to distinguish singular vs. plural pronoun translations. I prefer to think he chose his pronouns deliberately, though, that he recognized their colloquial use and the relationships they implied.

I respect the modern sense of reverence and formality that surrounds this archaic case, but peeling back that layer to the history that lies beneath communicates an added meaning for me. In addressing my God with thou and thee I acknowledge a kinship, an exquisitely personal relationship with the Only One who knows me perfectly, the Only One with whom politeness gives way to loving familiarity.

Those simple bygone pronouns, for me, stand as a symbol of the Lord’s grace, and of the beautiful, individual connection that binds me to Him.

Sometimes, politeness isn’t everything, and formality is only a façade.

When Someone Has an Axe to Grind

GrammarNazis_02

 

We find one of the longest battles in English linguistic history in that simple, problematic word “ask.” You wouldn’t think that three small letters could cause so much trouble, but you would be wrong. Nowadays, someone using the pronunciation of “aks” (or “ax,” as it’s commonly written) gets painted as ignorant or lower class.

When really, it’s been a dialect issue from the beginning.

If you look up “ask” in the Oxford English Dictionary, the etymology section will provide you with 40+ different spellings that have been used over the past thousand years. Old English used both acsian and ascian (but note that it’s also generally accepted that “sc” was pronounced like modern “sh” rather than “sk”). Middle English, true to its nature, has a dozen or more variations, depending on which dialect of English the written work comes from, and a good number of them use the letter x.

In other words, over the course of English history, it has not been at all uncommon to axe someone a question. In fact, for a good stretch in the Middle Ages, it appears to have been the standard.

Tell this to a modern Grammar Nazi, though, and you’re taking your life into your hands. (I did once. All I got in return was a hard stare and a single word: “NO.” I still get the giggles thinking about it.)

When two sounds in a word switch places, it’s called metathesis. This is a natural linguistic phenomenon. It’s the reason people sometimes pronounce prescribe as “perscribe” or nuclear as “nu-kyu-lar.” And, oddly enough, it probably has less to do with the speaker’s education and more to do with the ever mysterious brain-to-mouth process.

Nuclear is a fun one to look at. One of my professors back in the day pointed out that there are only, like, three words in the English language that end in that particular sound combination (the two-syllable “KLEE-er” as opposed to a one-syllable “KLEER” or “KLIR”), and that the other two are obscure. (I still don’t know what they are, so I can’t tell if he was being hyperbolic or literal; I can only report the anecdote.)

Meanwhile, you have particular, molecular, ocular, circular, spectacular, and dozens upon dozens of others than end in –cular: a quick Google search yields a list of 105, many of which have the scientific/medical context that someone might associate with nuclear.

In that respect, metathesis to “nu-kyu-lar” doesn’t seem so far-fetched. The sound cluster is a common linguistic pattern. (And this professor was a pioneer for Analogical Modeling, so patterns played a huge part of his research.)

Similarly, pronouncing ask as “ax” isn’t such a stretch either. The consonant cluster “sk” occurs less frequently than “ks”—so much so that we have a single letter in our alphabet that can represent the second cluster (much love to you, letter x), while the first is always two letters or more. Plus, “sk” requires slightly more effort to articulate.

Go on. Say the two sounds against one another.

sk-sk-sk-sk

ks-ks-ks-ks

I’m not going to say that people are linguistically lazy, but we all slur letters and drop syllables. I mean, really. Who’s vocab’s perf? Obvi erryone’s had this awks convo wi’ th’r fams, amirite?

The Path of Least Linguistic Resistance is almost a birthright, and metathesis is one of its many variables. If chronic mispronunciation really is a brain-to-mouth process issue, calling someone out for it would be akin to mocking someone who has a speech impediment.

But whatevs. Do what you want.

(Just remember, though: on the Grand Scale of Time, you might be the one who’s saying things wrong. Language change is funny like that.)

 

Verbs, Part 5: Copulas and Existentials

This post covers two essential constructs most commonly associated with the verb to be.

Objectives:

  1. Demonstrate understanding of copulas and existentials.
  2. Eliminate the existential construct in favor of a stronger subject and main verb.

Skill Level: Intermediate

Copulas, AKA Linking Verbs

In English, the term “copula” (or “linking verb”) refers to a verb that links a subject  and a subject predicate. (The subject predicate, as indicated by its name, takes a nominative case.) The copula serves as a sort of grammatical placeholder and holds little lexical meaning despite its grammatical and rhetorical purpose.

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Verbs, Part 2: Tense, Mood, and Aspect

This post covers the verb features of Tense, Mood, and Aspect. It’s boring, and I’ve put off writing it forever because it’s boring.

Objectives:

  1. Define the verb features of Tense, Mood, and Aspect.
  2. Supply the correct form for a set of given verbs and features.

Skill level: intermediate

“The past and the future walked into a bar. It was tense.”

As grammar jokes go, this one is fairly awful. (But I laugh all the same, of course, because my sense of humor apparently sprouted in one of our local corn fields.) Of the verb features, Tense is probably the easiest to understand. Mood, and Aspect were once these nebulous terms to me, conditions that I understood existed but that I couldn’t pinpoint or keep track of. A fourth verb feature, Voice, merits its own post and will be discussed only minimally here.

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Verbs: Part 1 of Many

This post is the first in a series on Verbs. Dry, dry, horrifically essential stuff.

Objectives:

  1. Discuss the difference between finite and non-finite verbs.
  2. Extract all the verbs from a passage of prose; categorize them as finite or non-finite.

Skill Level: beginner

If the five lexical categories were Tolkien’s infamous rings, the Verb would be the One Ring to rule them all.  For writers, it can make or break a narrative. A wrong verb or a wrong tense on a verb can skew your intended meaning and instantly derail your reader’s focus. It can also summon grammar-wraiths to hammer their shrieking condemnation down upon your head. (Man, how I wish I were only kidding about that.)

Thus, as writers, it behooves us to be well acquainted—and perhaps even intimate—with our friend and sometimes friendly nemesis, the Verb.

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Nouns: An Overview

This post provides an overview of the Noun. Skill level: Beginner

Objectives:

  1. Define the term “noun” semantically, morphologically, and syntactically.
  2. Discuss features of nouns in English (number, possession).
  3. Create nouns from other parts of speech using only syntactic placement to indicate the change.

I’d love to say that nouns are a self-explanatory category. I mean, we all know what a noun is, right? Or, we’ve heard the word and have a general idea, or… something. The purpose of this post is to codify that “something” into a more concrete understanding. If you know exactly what a noun is and can accomplish all of the above objectives already, then feel free to move along.

If not, or if you want a refresher, read on.

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I Can Syntax, and You Can Too!

Ease-peasy, this syntax stuff.

Easy-peasy, this syntax stuff.

This posts covers an introduction to basic syntax. Skill level: Beginner.

Objectives:

  1. Identify the three levels of syntax.
  2. Classify words according to their appropriate levels.

For a definition of “syntax,” click here. (I could paraphrase, but I’d have to give credit anyway, so I might as well send you straight to the source.) Right, then. With that settled, let’s jump right in, shall we?

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Linguistics for Writers: An Introduction

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.

~Alexander Pope

I try to obey one basic philosophy when it comes to grammar and usage mistakes: “Be gentle with others; be strict with yourself.”

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