Mark Twain & Isaac Asimov
 

On May 18, 2003, I wrote back to a young friend who asked me to be on his radio program. This young man wants to make the world a better place. He says that wants to be known nationally for his commentary and good works.

This is good. I am 67 years old and I don't have any children, but I do wonder if there will be anything resembling civilization left for your descendants in 500 years.

I suggested that he might garner a bit of background for his worthy crusade by reading something by Mark Twain and Isaac Asimov.

Mark Twain and Isaac Asimov were astute observers of the human condition, and, although they understood people well enough to know that nothing would be done, they left us with their observations of what could be done.

If you have never read Mark Twain or Isaac Asimov, you might want to read two of the most important things they ever said. When you finish, you will know why they were great men.

"Even if this is the only thing you ever read produced by the late Dr. Asimov, you will get a good idea as to the level of his wisdom."

On September 13, 2003 I added (beneath Twain and Asimov) Scott E. Kapel's "Bishop Lowth was a fool." When you read Dr. Kapel's essay, you will learn, in 10 minutes, something that cost me three years of concentrated graduate-level study at the University of Rochester. Go for it, although your life will never again be the same.

 


 
A speech by Isaac Assimov that was recorded and transcribed

 


 

 


 
Mark Twain

Bishop Lowth was a Fool
 

Bishop Lowth was a Fool ... two words, such as "to split," and there is little logic to keeping them fused together, except that it cannot be done in Latin and Bishop Lowth decided, quite ... www.newdream.net/~scully/toelw/Lowth.htm - 25k

[Because this web page is purple print on a black background, I have copied it here, black on white, so you may easily read it. -- humble]

MISTAKES, FALLACIES, AND IRRESPONSIBILITES OF PRESCRIPTIVE GRAMMAR

Bishop Robert Lowth undoubtedly thought he was doing a great service to speakers and writers of the English language when in 1762 he published his Short Introduction to English Grammar. However, the reality is that Lowth has done a grave disservice to both users of English, and the rich and wonderful language itself. Rather than basing his grammatical rules in the usage of the best educated speakers and writers of English, he erringly and foolishly based them on the Latin grammatical system, a system wholly inappropriate and incapable of dictating usage to a language as different from Latin as Germanic-based English. The result is that many modern usages in English, particularly an alarming number of rules of normative usage and Standard Written English, are based upon those false origins. Additionally, Lowth's defense of Latin as an "educated" role model for English has given rise to a school of prescriptive grammarians who find it their sworn duty to prescribe this Latinate usage system to those speakers who have managed to escape its inoculation in the educational institutions of English-speaking countries. Prescriptive grammarians are adamant, and their forceful prescriptions and high-brow judgments are irresponsible, and a denial of the rich cultural heritage of our language.

Descriptive grammarians, those who think and attempt to promote that usage rules should be based upon the more reasonable precedents set forth in the language's dialects and history (sometimes as far back as Old English), fight a seemingly endless battle against the established norms of prescriptivists. However, descriptivists can use a plethora of arguments to point out the many logical fallacies of a language with an improper usage base in Latin.

Hot linguistic debate often occurs over a number of normative usage rules. One example which leaps instantly to mind is the foolish "one must never split an infinitive." In Lowth's grammar infinitives cannot be split. It is not possible for Lowth because it is not possible in Latin to split an infinitive. Well, of course not. In Latin, an infinitive is one word. However, it is not in English. English infinitives are two words, such as "to split," and there is little logic to keeping them fused together, except that it cannot be done in Latin and Bishop Lowth decided, quite on his own, that English should emulate Latin, and the world followed suit. Thus, one foolish man has made a messy mockery of the rich and dynamic English language. Because of Lowth's erroneous decision, users of English have no end of confusion and difficulty sorting out these illogical rules. With the split infinitive rule the user must struggle to correct what in normal, casual speech might be expressed "I was teaching him to accurately shoot his annoying neighbor," or "I would like you to rapidly run through those crazy grammar rules again." In both of these examples, it is more logically appealing to split the infinitive because the adverb is modifying the core of the infinitive, shoot or run, and to maintain the infinitive by placing the adverb elsewhere disrupts the flow of the modification and decreases its intensity. This is especially true when the adverb is placed before the infinitive, which is where many prescriptivists would assign it, believing it to thus sound more educated. But "rapidly to run," or "accurately to shoot" sounds more affected than it does educated. H. W. Fowler in his Dictionary of Modern English Usage, notes that "the English-speaking world may be divided into (1) those who neither know nor care what a split infinitive is; (2) those who do not know, but care very much; (3) those who know and condemn; (4) those who know and approve; (5) those who know and distinguish....Those who neither know nor care are the vast majority, and are a happy folk, to be envied by most of the minority classes." (579) Fowler was obviously aware of the Latinate models and realized they were inappropriate for English. Additionally, William and Mary Morris in the Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage, explain that since pedantic prescriptivists modeled from Latin, "The pedants reasoned that both elements of an English infinitive should be considered as fused into one--unsplittable and sacrosanct. Only that's not the way English works." (318) Since the infinitive split is generally the preference in speech, prescriptivists have lost ground, and normative usage rules have begun to allow for judgment calls on the part of the writer or speaker as to whether to split an infinitive. This is seen in definitions such as from Mattson, Leshing, and Levi's Help Yourself, A Guide to Writing and Rewriting wherein it states, "As a general rule, to and the verb should be separated...when the separation avoids awkwardness or increases clarity" (372) and The Little, Brown Handbook, 5th Edition states that "A split infinitive may sometimes be natural and preferable, though it may still bother some readers." (312) Strunk and White in their Elements of Style. 3rd Ed. note

The split infinitive is another trick of rhetoric in which the ear must be quicker than the handbook. Some infinitives seem to improve upon being split, just as a stick of round stovewood does. "I cannot bring myself to really like the fellow." The sentence is relaxed, the meaning is clear, the violation is harmless and scarcely perceptible. Put the other way, the sentence becomes stiff, needlessly formal. (78)

Stilted prescriptivists should especially note H.W. Fowler's observation that "Those upon whom the fear of infinitive-splitting sits heavily should remember that to give conclusive evidence, by distortions, of misconceiving the nature of a split infinitive is far more damaging to their literary pretensions than an actual lapse could be." (580) It would appear that at least some of the Lowth fallacies are being addressed, but if infinitives can break through, why not other illogical or unreasonable forms?

Consider the plight of yet another grammar hammering: "one must never end a sentence with a preposition." Again, this is a preposterous rule based on the Latin system. In Latin, the arrangement almost never occurs that a sentence ends with a preposition. It must be reiterated that English is a wholly different language with different and diverse demands from Latin. Sentences frequently end with prepositions in English, quite naturally. The simple fact is that to avoid a construction such as "I think it's the baking industry in particular that he's mad at," because it ends in a preposition, leads a frustrated speaker or writer to abandon this perfectly natural and understandable syntax in favor of periphrasis to work around the preposition, making a stilted and affected construction: "I think its the baking industry in particular at which he is mad." This frustration gave rise to what is perhaps the most famous quote about grammar from all time, Winston Churchill's comment to his speech writer that the aggravating rule "is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put." Descriptivists have hoped that Churchill's dismissive statement sounded the death knell for the silly rule. Unfortunately, it is still regarded as gospel of junior high school grammar. H.W. Fowler observed that the preposition rule is "a cherished superstition in spite of the incurable English instinct for putting [prepositions] late...an important element in the flexibility of the language." (473). The Morrises paneled this usage and received such responses as

There is often no substitute for a preposition to end a sentence with.

The whole question is like infinitive-splitting, an area for pedantic nit-picking. Much better to casually split an infinitive or use a preposition to end a sentence with than arduously, ingeniously, and with great effort avoid doing so.

To try to avoid [preposition endings] always means even more awkward circumlocutions. I think the rule is silly. It's left over from the days when verse ruled in literature. Generally if one ends a line of poetry with a preposition, , he's ending with the short syllable of a foot, which is disaster. I seem to remember John Dryden being involved in this "rule."

It is natural for Germanic languages to use postposition for prepositions. It was doubtless the influence of Latin grammar that influenced schoolteachers who knew more Latin than German. (483-4)

Ah! This last comment is a key point that must have eluded Lowth and continues to do so for all who follow him. English is a Germanic language. It is not Latin, and thus it is erroneous to impose a grammar system from a completely foreign language, rather than from a natural progenitor. Fortunately, a few sources are beginning to recognize this error and dismiss the rule. The Harbrace College Handbook, 10th Ed. states in its definition of prepositions that "The preposition may follow rather than precede its object, and it may be placed at the end of the sentence: What was he complaining about?" Unfortunately, despite many normative usage sources attempting to dispel these inappropriate usage rules, the primary reason these rules remain in effect is the formative education classroom. Schoolmarms, for whatever misguided reason, endlessly preach these rules that Lowth mistakenly imposed in the eighteenth-century. It is the never-ending problem of these rules being accepted at face value when taught by a supposed expert. Yet, if these experts had educated themselves on the history of their language, they would learn, of their own accord, that these usages and rules are simply solecisms.

Many words of the English language have fallen out of regular usage due to senseless prescriptions, which are often based in social judgment. Such a word is ain't. Ain't seems to be likened to the worst of vulgarisms by both prescriptivists and other would-be educated speakers. It would appear that most of these prescriptivists feel that the word ain't is the principal indication of its speakers ignorance and lack of education. In fact, nothing could be farther from the truth. While indeed irresponsible social attitudes in modern times have pushed the word out of regular usage, it nevertheless saw widespread use from both highly educated and wealthy speakers throughout its history.

Dr. Joseph Williams is Professor of English at the University of Chicago, Co-director of its Institute on Critical Thinking and Higher Order Reasoning, and member of the Modern Language Association, the Linguistics Society, and the National Council of Teachers in English. He notes that If [ain't] is now "ungrammatical" in some upper middle class dialects in our north central states, it was as late as the turn of the century freely used by many upper middle class educated speakers in the southern part of England and is used today in the casual speech of a good many highly educated southerners and westerners. To call it totally ungrammatical is to betray one's geographical biases. That it is now considered such is a sociological, historical accident. (277)

Yet, it would seem that the inexcusability of this word has been hammered into the minds of contemporary English speakers by far too many an affected prescriptivist and junior high school grammar teacher. These prescriptivists, and those who blindly follow them with swords drawn, often chant as their battle cry that an educated speaker would immediately know the improperness of ain't and would naturally shy away from using it. Indeed it would seem that any number of influential people in society have been brainwashed by adamant and persuasive prescriptivists. Williams polled the Harper panel of linguistic and usage experts and surprisingly received such disdaining responses as

Ain't is as permissible as saying "Hi, Betty!" on being introduced to Queen Elizabeth. However, it's permissible in writing to indicate...class or status.

I would accept it in dialogue, as indicative of character, status, etc.

One usage (in writing) is simple ignorance; the other (speech) a sleazy hope of folksiness.

Few literate people use "ain't" except in attempts, usually unsuccessful, to be "folksy."

It's still coarse and back-country. (23-24)

All of the respondents quoted above indicate that usage of the word is sufficient grounds to assign and judge the user's social class, level of education, and intellectual worth. None of the commentators seems aware that ain't has been a perfectly acceptable and regularly used word among highly cultivated and educated speakers until foolish prescriptivists like themselves began to assert their social judgments and would-be wisdom. In fact, of the entire panel surveyed by Harper, of which there were 61 contributing members, only five seemed to be aware of this history. Had the highbrow panelists cared to educate themselves on the origin of ain't, they would have discovered that it had a logical, and amazingly enough, grammatically correct development.

Simply, ain't developed as a contraction of am not, with am not being contracted to amn't, then to aan't, and through phonological pronunciation the spelling became ain't. It also has a second source, being have not. This went from hasn't to han't to hain't (again, because of pronunciation)and then the h was dropped to form ain't (Williams 277). Curiously enough, many "backwoods" or "folksy" users of ain't, whose dialects retain many vestiges of Old, Middle, and Early Modern English, continue to use hain't with the pronounced h to differentiate between am not and have not. This is somewhat of an unspoken grammatical rule amongst these "uneducated" speakers.

Often, those prescriptivists who are aware of ain't's origin yet maintain that it is improper usage. Prescriptivists and their followers will quite often erringly state that aren't is the acceptable contraction, rather than ain't. In a quick survey of 20 English speakers, taken for documentation here, 19 of the 20 respondents, when asked if they would "I'm your friend, ain't I?" or "I'm your friend, aren't I?" chose the aren't contraction without hesitation. This is an alarming example of an ungrammatical usage taking preference over a more grammatical one simply because of the social stigmas with which the ain't contraction is labeled by contemporary prescriptivists and their followers. The fallacy of the aren't choice is that aren't doesn't agree with the first person pronoun I. The proper non-contracted response is "I am your friend, am I not?" where am agrees with I, while are would require the pronoun to be you or they. Since the non-contracted response is am not, the required contraction is one of am not, which historically is ain't. Aren't simply does not work and is ungrammatical, but is chosen without hesitation by the average speaker simply because it denies the usage of ain't, which they have been led to believe by schoolmarms is wrong. Of the twenty respondents to the quick survey, only a few recognized that the aren't choice was incorrect and stated that they would rather use am not, but not ain't. Yet, the response "I am your friend, am I not?" seems quite stilted, especially considering that the context of the sentence would indicate that it was casual speech among friends. One of the guiding rules of linguistics, in terms of development and change, is that the easier form will generally always win out. Certainly it is easier to roll "ain't I" off one's tongue than "am I not," and with much less affectation. Other respondents to the Harper survey of ain't usage were more sagacious about its sensible use: "Ain't" is the right and inevitable contraction the language demands and will have. No amount of schoolmarming will suppress it. It's about time to end the conspiracy against it.

I'll accept "ain't I?" instead of "am I not?" That's useful.

It's in Shakespeare. I'd vote to see it come back.

I think "ain't" is historically good English and practically necessary. But the schoolmarms have made it impossible, alas.

Disapproving of "ain't" when no good substitute exists seems stuffy but childhood brainwashing is hard to overcome.

But "ain't" is rapidly becoming obsolete, alas, due to generations of excoriations by schoolteachers. (23-24)

It would seem, then, that prescriptivists would deny the usage of ain't simply based upon its social damnation, in a sorry attempt to prove their education. The simple fact is, though, that if these pretentious speakers were truly educated in the history of their language, beyond the blindly accepted authority of their junior high school grammar teachers, they would realize that ain't is not a solecism, but rather a more proper, historically viable, and more educated usage than their affected substitutions. Perhaps if they were made to understand this, ain't would see a reasonable, sensible, and respectable revival.

Beyond these Standard Written English and normative usage fallacies, prescriptivists also cringe at the number of vestigial speech patterns present in those from remote cultures with limited exposure to "mainstream" culture and change. These holdovers give no end of annoyance to prescriptivists. These are worthy of at least summary mention. Many of these remote cultures come with socially stigmatized names such as hick, hillbilly, and mountain tacky. It is clear that the majority of members of these remote cultures are indeed uneducated, but it is not reasonable to use this as a reason to attack their unusual syntax and usage. Again, if the prescriptivists would educate themselves in the history of their language, they may begin to understand these vestigial usages and appreciate them for their rich historical heritage. Many of these holdovers are words whose origin can be traced back as far as Middle English or beyond. For example, words such as hit, meaning it with a pronounced h, or holp, meaning help, would be considered intolerable by prescriptivists. But these words can be found regularly in Chaucer. Prescriptive intellectuals will gladly expound on the virtues of Chaucer's works and consider themselves quite educated for doing so; interestingly enough, they fall quite short of a response when told that hit or holp, which they have so much disdain for, occurs frequently in Chaucer when read in its original, Middle English form, which most prescriptivists have never done, rather than its Modern English translation. There remain many more rules of Standard Written English and normative usage that are poorly determined and foolishly maintained; it would require volumes to adequately dispute them.

The extent to which prescriptive grammarians cling to and hammer their inaccurate prescriptions is angering. Yet, it must be granted that the origins lie beyond their reach. However, what is not excusable is such vehemence based on secondhand learning, without any direct research. Many prescriptivists have made no effort to personally research their usage rules when faced with the charges of descriptivists. Simply because their junior high school grammar teachers convinced them that these prescriptions were accurate, they are taken as law. It is unfortunate, though, that such defensiveness does little more than indicate a prescriptivists lack of education, rather than prove it as he would so often wish it to. What makes prescriptive grammar irresponsible is that it often becomes the basis for social judgment and oppression. Those who are unfamiliar with these prescriptions are often denied access to many areas of modern society. Because these prescriptions have little basis in logic or sense, and those unfamiliar with them employ usages which are logical and sensible, and most often historically correct, this inherently implies a respectable logical and sensible thinking ability. Until prescriptivists grant the foolishness and impracticality of their many prescriptions, there is likely to be little change or hope for those unfamiliar with, or unwilling to accept these rules. For those who are educated and familiar with these fallacies, the only course seems to be to regard English as essentially two languages, one that is descriptive, logical, and very useful in casual conversation, and one that is prescriptive, to be employed when necessary to placate fiery prescriptivists. Until such a time comes that senseless prescriptions can be eliminated and English can return to a rich and passionate, rather than a stilted and calculated language, descriptivists must simply tighten their belts and, like Job, endure.

Return to Solecisms

Authored by and Copyright 1995, 1996 by Scott E. Kapel.



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