Category Archives: Language

One Hit Weirdos

Bram Stoker, present day.

Yesterday, I was wracking my brain trying to decide exactly what I wanted to write on for today.  It wasn’t that I couldn’t think of anything to say, but I couldn’t think of anything to say that I cared about.  Remember that discussion we had about how feelings try to trick you into not writing?  Yeah, they get in my way just as bad as anybody.

So instead of running over all the old and worn out ideas one more time, I decided it was time to call in the idea doctor.  It was time to talk to my sister.

I like to think of my sister as kind of a second brain.  Our tastes are so similar it’s scary. We can go for hours talking about weird linguistic tangents that would make most other people roll their eyes and walk away.  Bottom line, if anyone could rescue me from my idea overload it would be her.

So I went to her and said, “Hey Sarah.  Tell me what I should write about in my blog post.”

And she said, “Well, I’ve been reading in this book you gave me for Christmas about how that this one guy invented the rule about not ending sentences with prepositions.”

“Yes,” said I, “But I’ve already done a post about the Evil Prescriptivist Empire.”

“But, did you mention, that it was one guy that came up with this rule all by himself and he based it on basically nothing other than that fact that he thought it sounded good?”

“No.  Really?”


Of course we all know that, the “don’t end a sentence with a preposition” thing is pure prescriptivist poppycock.  But I was struck by the idea that one man could single handedly (and before you ask, no, I don’t know what happened to his other hand) make such a shift in the collective view of language that even today overzealous editors, grammar nazis and pickled English teachers everywhere would be incorrectly quoting his rule.

And the fact that this is the thing he his most remembered for seems like a tragedy of epic proportions.  Because John Dryden was a writer.  In his day his work was very well respected.  He was following on the coattails* of literary giants like Ben Johnson and William Shakespeare.  So great was his prominence in his day, that he eventually worked up the balls to actually criticize the writing styles of both Johnson and Shakespeare.

Yet today he has been almost completely forgotten.  Almost.  Except you will still hear that old saw, “you shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition”  until the day you die.

Now I have an interest in one hit wonders.  I’m talking about people who are wildly famous for one thing, while being forgotten for the rest of their work.  I can’t figure out whether I should be envious of them or sorry for them. On the one hand, Bram Stoker’s name will never die because of Dracula.  But how would you like to be Bram Stoker and travel forward in time.  You’d ask someone “Say, what did you think of my book, The Lair of the White Worm?”  and they would say, “Who are you and why are you on my front porch dressed like a guy from the 1800’s?  It’s not Halloween for another six months.  And is that a time machine in my yard?  Look what it’s done to my lawn!”

See?  Not a pretty picture.

But Dryden’s situation is ten times worse because out of all the writing he did, he is best remembered for making up one stupid rule.

I have very little respect for the man who was John Dryden, but still I feel a twinge of sympathy when I think of how he is remembered.  To spend your life and your best efforts trying to create something of enough worth to be passed down through future generations, and then end up being remembered for something so meaningless seems to me to be the worst kind of fate that could befall a writer or creator of any kind.

So let this be a lesson to you.  If you strive for literary immortality, be careful what you wish for.


*Is it just me, or is it weird that “coattails” is correct as one word, but “thank you” isn’t?

“X and I”

Recently I heard someone say something along the lines of “Tell her to meet Dave and I by the front of the store.”  It’s not the first time I’ve heard this mistake.  It’s caught my attention on several reality TV shows I like and it seems as if it’s becoming more and more common.  But what interests me is the reason I believe it’s becoming more common.

The blame lies squarely at the feet of prescriptivist linguists (affectionately known to some as Grammar Nazis) who have gone around for decades chiding people saying “Don’t say Dave and me are going to the movies.  The correct phrase is, Dave and I are going to the movies.”

Of course the prescriptivists are correct in pointing out that it is technically incorrect to use the objective phrase “X and me” as a subject, but the problem is that, instead of teaching people the correct rules of usage they’ve left people with the impression that “X and I” is more proper than “X and me” in all cases.

I think part of the problem lies in the enforcement of the rules of written language in the context of spoken language.  Whether or not you think it is proper to end a written sentence with a preposition, it is never proper to correct a spoken sentence that ends that way.  The same goes for most of the rules of written grammar.  Speaking and writing are not the same thing.  I know that seems obvious, but I wonder how much confusion and general snobbery could be avoided if English teachers pointed out the differences between speaking and writing more frequently.  The linguistic rules in our heads are soft and gooey and they don’t always match up exactly with the sharp, adamantine rules in our English textbooks.  The simple truth is, people speak differently than they write.  And I for one am fine with that.

Exception to the Rules

I’ve always hated English. Not the language mind you, the subject. The thing I always hated about it was the fact that there were so many “rules” that I was told I was supposed to follow. But the real problem was that is seemed like there were nearly as many exceptions to the rules as there were rules themselves. It didn’t make sense to me. There were no exceptions to the rules I was taught in math. I never had to deal with “2+2=4 unless the preceding problem is 7-9.”
Now that I’m older I realize why my younger self was so frustrated with the system. Because the truth is, there are no “rules” to the English language; there was never a time when a bunch of professors got together and said, “So we’ve got all these words floating around, and maybe it would be nice to develop a framework of grammar for them to fit into.” Language became what it is through usage. That isn’t to say that there’s no right and wrong way of using language, but the heart of good usage is structure.
For instant, this sentence aren’t going to works in your mind because it ignore basic subject/verb agreement structure.
But the thing is, you don’t need to be taught that what you just read is wrong. You sense it intuitively, because that simply isn’t how people use language. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that English as a subject shouldn’t be taught at all. But I do think there should be far less emphasis on the so-called “rules.” To quote Captain Barbossa “They’re more like guidelines, really.”

Word Salad with Ranch Dressing

Today I saw a newspaper with the headline “Teen Remains Jailed” and my first instinctive reaction was, “They jailed the dude’s remains? Man, that seems a little harsh.” It’s weird because the more I write and think about language, the less sense it all seems to make.