Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Grammar's Changed a Lot in 80 Years

When I was sixteen, I acquired A Dictionary of Correct English, by M. Alderton Pink, M.A.*, a grammar and usage guide published in 1934. I'm no longer sure how exactly I got the book, but the fact remains that when I was seventeen, I read it cover to cover during school time, for fun. No, I'm not actually insane. I'm just a really, really big dork sometimes.

I remember one of things that struck me while reading this book was how much certain usage rules had changed in the nearly 70 years since the book was published. Oh, a lot had stayed the same—there are only so many things you can do with periods and commas—but the changes? They are fantastic, I tell you. Fantastic and hilarious!

(In case anyone's using this post for serious research, I'd like to mention that this book was printed in England, for what appear to be English businessmen. Also, it has been "revised and enlarged", to quote the title page, which makes me wonder when the first publication of it was. All I know is this is the second edition.)

Here are some of the highlights:
  • "The acceptation of a particular word or phrase is its particular sense, its generally accepted meaning"
  • It's accessory, acowstic (not acoostic), applicable, conversant, difthong and diftheria, exquisite, impious, irrefutable, irrevocable, and peremptory. (Bold signifies stress.)
  • You don't admit to something, you admit of it. Similarly, you're supposed to aim at everything; only Americans aim to. Also you connive at; are enamoured of, not with; infringe, not infringe on; infuse into; instill into; are oblivious of; permeate through, but never just permeate; substitute for; and replace by.
  • Business English was annoying complicated even back then, and the writer advises against it.
  • Some people were erroneously pronouncing cinema with a k, deficit with a stressed second syllable, flassid for flaksid (flaccid, in case you didn't catch that), gibberish with a soft g, trait with a final t (like the BBC), and valet without a t.
  • "We may say that a house consists of three reception rooms, five bedrooms, etc., or that it comprises those rooms, but not that it is comprised of the rooms."
  • It is possible to turn up one's nose at various colloquial meanings for words, and various pronunciations, while at the same time saying that "Language is Always Changing".
  • Facilitate should not have a human subject. 
  • The author predicted that the pronunciation of garage that rhymes with carriage would become the standard. 
  • Hectic applies only to fever or flushed cheeks. It does not mean "exciting, wild, hurried".
  • Individual should never be synonymous with person (a shady individual is wrong).
  • The section on the correct form for letters take up five pages. Obscurity takes up six. Paragraphing takes eight. Correct pronunciation of surnames takes up two and a bit pages, with two columns and smaller font. Forms of address for dignitaries and nobles is one page of equally small font. The publisher's list of other helpful books for people in trades and offices takes up thirty-two pages.
  • "The title Esq. ought strictly to be confined to graduates of universities, Members of the House of Commons, private gentlemen, and the members of certain professions."**
  • This fairly stodgy book nevertheless clarifies the pronunciation of orgy and seraglio (which is apparently serahlyo, in case you were wondering).
  • Prepositions can end sentences. "The fact is that those who try to insist on the avoidance of the final preposition have not considered English idiom sufficiently carefully."
  • This fairly stodgy author nevertheless has a bit of wit to him, at least on the subject of strings of prepositions. In fact, he's positively snarky at one point.
  • "We may say—I will prevent him from doing this, or, I will prevent his doing this; but not—I will prevent him doing this."
  • "…ordinary sentences dealing with matters of fact can be punctuated strictly according to rule. But the need for latitude arises when the writing is of an abstract or imaginative character." "Never put a stop*** at any place in a sentence unless a pause would be required in the reading." (Italics original. Asterisks, not so much.)
  • Transpire means "become known", not "happen".
  • Wrath has the same vowel as broad.
Anything in quotes is taken directly from the book, unless it's a definition.

Like I said, it's both interesting and amusing to see what's changed over time. I imagine Mr. Alderton Pink, M.A. turning in his grave at every 'mispronunciation' that's now standard. Of course, I know that I'm used to North American English and he's writing from the perspective of British English, so there are bound to be differences just from that. Any British English speakers who'd like to weigh in on whether these rules have held up over time? Anyone have crazy and/or outdated usage rules to share? Anyone have a favourite rule from the list?

* I could not have made that name up.
** I will be signing my name with Esq. from now on.
*** He means any punctuation mark.

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