Dublin Podcast Festival: are you a grammar pedant? Don’t worry, it’s a curable disease
The Allusionist host Helen Zaltzman says many rules were smuggled into English from Latin by grumpy men in the 18th century
Helen Zaltzman: Sometimes I split an infinitive just because I know it will infuriate certain listeners. Photograph: Baraduin Briggs
In January 2015, I launched The Allusionist, a podcast about language and why we humans use it the ways we do. I’ve learned about invented languages, ancient punctuation, how languages die and survive, fake words in the dictionary, the health benefits of swearing, and that the term “log in” derives from actual logs. The five most important things I’ve learned are:
1 People are really interested in language, even if they don’t realise it.
Language is a tool used in some form by pretty much every human, so we should be interested in it! Like clothing, architecture and food, language is something where the practical meets the creative: it’s ubiquitous, and even if we’re deploying language in what we think is the most drab, by-the-book fashion, we’re nevertheless using it in a highly individualistic way. With the English language alone, we have 26 letters to play with, a few hundred thousand words, which we can use in infinite combinations to name a baby, propose marriage, start a war, buy second-hand patio furniture online, blackmail someone, order a sandwich, lay a loved one to rest.
2 The more I learn about the English language, the less pedantic I am.
In a way, it’s a relief. Pedantry is a lot of pointless anger to carry around with you: rending your garments when you hear “less” instead of “fewer”, or throwing a brick at a shop that has an extraneous apostrophe on its sign. I admit: I grew up a ferocious pedant, tormenting my poor mother at any verbal slip – but I’ve come a long way since to extinguish these tedious fires. Now I no longer even rub out a misplaced apostrophe on a cafe’s chalkboard. I barely even puke a little in my mouth!
Picking on a misused word or grammatical slip is a great way of telling someone, “I’m not actually paying attention to your meaning”. It’s insulting to them, it doesn’t paint you in glory either, and it misses the important stuff, which is communication. If we can understand each other, language is working well enough. Also:
3 Many grammar and spelling rules were made up by a clutch of grumpy white men in England in the 18th century, who thought the English language should behave like Latin.
But, though around 70 per cent of English vocabulary derives from Latin, the English language is not Latin. Let’s say language is sausages and grammar is the sausage machine and words are the meat you’re feeding into the sausage machine. When you feed English language meat into a Latin sausage machine, it starts splooging out the sides, dripping on to the floor and producing decidedly wonkily shaped and inconsistently sized sausages. The results are still adequate – sausages are, after all, delicious even when deformed – but you shouldn’t be so outraged that you don’t win the rosette for Tidiest Sausages at the annual Sausage Pageant.
the allusuinist podcast
So if you encounter a grammatical rule that doesn’t seem to be born of logic or to clarify meaning, it may well be one of these imports from Latin that English doesn’t want or need. If someone criticises you for splitting an infinitive, regard them with a dispassionate gaze and say, with only the slightest hint of condescension in your voice: “Well, in Latin, the infinitive form of the verb was only one word, so it was impossible to split it. It’s two words in English, and we have no obligation to keep them together, because – WAIT, COME BACK! – English is a language that allows us to get jazzy with word order for greater impact, and – I KNOW YOU CAN STILL HEAR ME! – just try telling Star Trek not “to go boldly” and see how well that turns out.”
Sometimes I split an infinitive just because I know it will infuriate certain listeners. After all, I’m the one with the microphone and they are not.
4 English is shaped by how its users use it.
And there’s no point resenting this. I may be a little peeved that the word “literally” is starting to mean its opposite, but in centuries to come, people might only know it in that newer sense, just as we no longer think “nice” means “foolish” or “awesome” means “awful”. Language changes, because we change it. The sausage is not shaped by the sausage machine, but the other way round (here the sausage machine metaphor crumbles like a Clonakilty pudding). And:
5 We’re better at dealing with change than we think.
I hear from a lot of people who are really uppity about the singular “they”. And yet, we’re already accustomed to singular “they”! Who hasn’t said a sentence like, “Who’s at the door, what do they want?” without a worry or pause about the pronoun – or any fear/confusion/anger about gender concepts?
“But Helen,” they complain – the plural “they” – “if ‘they’ could mean one person or many, it’s too confusing.” Is it, though? Consider another pronoun: ‘you’. For the past several hundred years, we have successfully used the same word in the singular and the plural. Before, “thou” was the singular, and “you” the plural and also the polite form. People were so polite, “you” came to supplant “thou” permanently.
Even if you don’t agree with all of them, there are several reasons why we need a gender-neutral singular pronoun, and unless a new word is coined and catches on, “they” is what we’ve got. Give people the pronouns they want; it doesn’t cost you anything.
Helen Zaltzman’s The Allusionist live on stage at Liberty Hall Theatre, Friday, September 28th (tickets €20 from ticketmaster.ie) is one of the podcasts in this year’s Dublin Podcast Festival, which is back for a second year running until October 17th. dublinpodcastfestival.ie