Friday, July 25, 2008

DFW and Grammar

I have, for years, been haunted by the dreaded "Victorian grammar rules", introduced to me as rules without reasons in school (one merely accepted, one did not even have the capacity to question back then, sadly), but eventually, as I began to realize the coolness of language and linguistics and all things such, they became things that made no sense

One day, whilst (hey gettin' crazy) assisting on the Microsoft Press version of Word 6.0 for the Mac (terrible program, the Windows version of the book is to be found on Amazon but not the Mac version), author M. David Stone mentioned "Victorian grammar rules", how they were absurd, based on Latin even though English is not a Romance language (it's Germanic), and how he hated them. He may have been excoriating a poor junior editor who had taken the very first sentence of a chapter and, sin of sins, made the verb passive (I am not very good at keeping track of that, sometimes I want to use a passive verb, English allows me to).

I see I haven't actually mentioned them. The two I am aware of are do not split an infinitive (since in Latin, verbs are one word, in English, the infinitive form is two words - split away by all means, to boldly go, etc.) and do not end sentences with prepositions. Now, if there is one thing most men can't stand being on the receiving end of, it's rules that say don't do this. We will do whatever it is, immediately if possible. (Reverse psychology does not always work on my nephew though, do not eat broccoli has yet to succeed.)

But, David Foster Wallace has a lengthy piece where, thank his socks, he mentions the evil Victorian grammar-meister: "The avoid-terminal-prepositions rule is the invention of one Fr. R. Lowth, an eighteenth-century British preacher and indurate pedant..." It is a good piece, but I didn't get into it until about a third of the way through where he talks about pants. That's when he really hits his stride (sorry, the pun, it was just there).