Category Archives: * Language

Quirks, interesting facts, or changes in the language

Language evolution and why grammar sometimes doesn’t matter

Yes, yes, it’s blasphemy to say grammar doesn’t matter. I myself get bristly about correct grammar, spelling, punctuation, and all that. Yet even while I maintain those standards as I edit documents, I simultaneously have a more relaxed attitude about our language and its future.

One only has to watch the evolution of the LOLspeak language to realize that things are going to change no matter what we do, and perhaps we should just watch and enjoy rather than fret overly much. Because my belief now is that good grammar is what works. Yes, I adhere to the rules, rather stringently sometimes, but I also know perfectly well that, for example, some day the possessive “it’s” (with the apostrophe) is going to be correct usage.

I thought of this inevitable change again as I read this piece by Jan Freeman at the Boston Globe: Fade Away: The slow retirement of a tricky subjunctive. She’s talking about the way the subjunctive “were” is gradually fading out of English, and how already it doesn’t really matter.

It’s especially interesting that the  verb “to be” is the only verb that doesn’t use its normal past tense (was) as a subjunctive, as every other verb does. And as one of the people Ms. Freeman talked to about this reminded her, “was” has also been used as the subjunctive by a great many people for 300 years, so it’s already halfway the norm.

This means that nobody misses what you mean, even if you don’t use the “were,” but use “was” instead. And once a grammatical or spelling change doesn’t affect the understanding at all, I think that spells doom for the original “correct” form. So “was” will become the subjunctive of “to be,” and some day grammarians will look back and think how archaic it sounds to use the old “were” form.

Grammar rules are codified by people who want the language set in stone, and the rules can be very useful to promote clear writing and communication. But language is a living thing, and will always change. And what is “correct” is what works best for people as they actually communicate. When using the “correct” way actually makes communication less clear, it’s simply no longer correct.

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