Wednesday, July 25, 2007

What means this "proper English?"

Over at Volokh, they've been having a right rollicking discussion of "proper English."

I'm in favor of restating the argument "is this proper English?" as "is this precise language?"

Adaptation of usage is commonplace in a living, ever-changing tongue, and sticklers (as I often show myself to be) have a right to become a little upset by some of those changes. For example, the regular application of "momentarily" to mean "presently" (soon), and "presently" to mean "currently" seems to chafe many. Words do change, and presently is now returning to its earlier (pre-16th century) usage. I've ultimately come to think it's funny. We've gone rather round our hindquarters to reach our elbow, linguistically.

But, while the meanings and uses for certain words change, this is usually effected by intellectual laziness or by lack of comprehension of the substance behind a definition. In other words, change comes through misuse of a perfectly good tool for communication.

I'm sure a sensible fellow wouldn't encourage his sons to use a belt sander or angle grinder to, say, carve the spindles of a bedpost -- especially if he had a perfectly good lathe and appropriate cutting tools right across the room at the time. So why would a laissez-faire attitude strike that same man, when it comes to tools to make himself understood?

I suppose it is because most people are only craftsmen, artisans within a certain medium, and care not a whit for the other trades. I do not know the difference between a capacitor and a microprocessor, and would not know how to use either one, whereas my physicist father can tell me in precise terms what the purpose and position should be for each. My father, though, sees no difference between a French chef's knife and a gardening trowel.

If one does not pursue an art, one does not value its equipment. When one does not value the thing, it stands a very good chance of being misused, abused, and, eventually, destroyed.

And so it is: every person speaks. I suppose every person moves, as well -- out from bed in the morning to face the dawn. That does not make him an athlete. And speech does not make a person a poet or an orator.

It just makes him a user -- and often, abuser -- of the tools.

The more I think about it, the more I believe I should attempt to rescue from the scrap heap those words long forgotten, terms loved and used by Chaucer and Milton and Shakespeare and then set aside as modernity crept in. The old tools may be a bit rusty, but they have not had their edges ground away into dull, flat uselessness. I can restore them.

I will get to it anon.

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