The war on error
As in the U.S. government’s war on terrorism, the war on error in English usage has been marked by vehement pronouncements, miscalculations and attacks on the wrong targets.
This has been going on for some time, as can be seen in a book that a reader, Bill Walderman, has kindly brought to my attention. English Usage: Studies in the History and Uses of English Words and Phrases was written by Professor J. Lesslie Hall of the College of William and Mary and published by Scott, Foresman in 1917. An examination of its chapters — it’s readily available, having been digitized by Google Books — shows that reason, scholarship and appeal to the idiom of the language have long been slugging it out with superstition and uninformed fiats.
Professor Hall took up the cudgels on the former side. He says in his preface: “I have long felt that not only purists but a far better class of men were putting us, teachers and pupils and general public, in strait-jackets. Distinguished grammarians and eminent rhetorical scholars condemn in their works many words and phrases that we see all through the literature. They seem at times to combine to expel from the language some locution that we have heard frequently from attractive speakers and have seen often in the works of eminent writers.”
There are, no surprise, entries on not splitting infinitives and not ending sentences with prepositions. But it is interesting to see, in addition to these hoary superstitions, entries on usages once scorned by self-appointed authorities whose objections today seem quaint or beside the point.
I look forward to reading about the debate over gotten, over graduate as an active verb, over pretty and such as adverbs. I long to discover why it was objectionable to use execute in the sense of put to death, why one cannot catch a train, why editorial should not be used as a noun. I’m keen to find out what is wrong with talented.
But see for yourself, and hope that language authorities may yet learn humility.