Monday, July 27, 2009

Rules, or Why Grade Six Still Matters

I was watching Mythbusters and heard one of the hosts comment "We did good." Grammatically, of course, he should have said "We did well" because he was modifying a verb ('did') which requires an adverb ('well'); he could use 'good' only if he was modifying a noun (e.g. "We did a good job"). As I noted in an tweet a few weeks back, I think we're seeing the death of the adverb. Over time, I wouldn't be surprised to see the adverb form of most modifiers disappear into the single adjective form--"good" will replace "well" and be used to modify both verbs and nouns.

What's interesting about this is how many people react to this idea when I mention it. Most people are horrified and see it as the language "degenerating." Notice: They don't say it's 'wrong'--they apply a moral term like 'degenerate.'

Equally interestingly: no one seems to feel it's bad if we add new rules to the language. When discussing an article I'm editing with an author, I've occasionally brought up a grammatical rule that the author has obviously never heard. The strongest reaction I get is "Really? I didn't know that." No one ever says "That's stupid. This whole language is getting too complicated." But ignore a rule that the author knows about...and it's just another sign of the world sinking into confusion.

In general, English has gotten simpler over time. For instance, we have fewer "cases" than the languages English descended from (cases refer to how words change depending on their grammatical purpose). Really, in English, only pronouns (he, she, you, I, etc.) have cases: We use 'I' as a subject and 'me' as an object. We used to have more--the pronouns have have actually lost cases. The instrumental case (a special form when something was used as a tool) existed in Old English but has disappeared from modern English. The possessive case is now handled by adding 's to the end of any noun or pronoun--I don't know if that even counts as a case. The subsumation of adverbs into adjectives is just part of that trend.

Most people seem to feel that our language is fixed and immutable--that there is a set of rules that have been laid down by...well, I'm not clear who is supposed to have laid down the rules. In North America people are deeply attached to the rules they were drilled in during grades five and six. You can add more rules to that set but any attempt to reduce that set of rules is morally repugnant. Somehow, the idea has arisen that the only contribution current generations are allowed to make to the language is to add new nouns. We're no longer allowed to change the meaning of existing words and adding new verbs is regarded with deep suspicion. And we are certainly not allowed to modify any of the rules!

But ask people if they want to speak like William Shakespeare did and they'll tell you "Oh, no. Our current language is much better." Makes you wonder how they think we got from Will to now.

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