I’ve sometimes wondered why I didn’t take more English or Comparative Literature classes in college. I love words, I love writing, I love reading, I love thinking about narrative and pacing and stories – it seems an easy fit. I think it’s because I never much cared for the “official” version of how writing ought to be judged. I don’t understand what gets some books labeled as “literature” and others as “genre”, and I’ve never been able to see writing rules as anything more than situationally pragmatic. I took a journalistic writing course, and it served me well for very specific situations.
But in general, I find words to be so much more fun when you look at them as living things, ever changing and growing and diminishing with common usage and uncommon plays on words. I have no need to concretize a particular linguistic paradigm as the “correct way”. I’ve spent some time learning ancient languages, and its clear that the “correct way” is really just “the way that was deemed correct for this particular context and thus will be required for you to understand this particular group of writers.” The Latin you learn to read Aquinas follows a clear set of easy-to-follow rules, and the Latin you learn to read Augustine is one poetic beast.
Guess which one I chose for my translation exam, and which one I’ve chosen to study for my career?
I think I chose philosophy over comp or English lit because it’s a field where I get to make up words in the name of clarity and accuracy. People laugh at academia for its wild jargon, but sometimes, in the moment of writing through an idea, having the ability to mold words to your will is liberating. Most philosophers and academics pepper their work with words from foreign languages when translation means a reduction of meaning and, when causal relationships in an argument demand a specific ordering of elements, they go far beyond the gerund in terms of anthimeria.
“‘Because’ has become a preposition, because grammar” tackles this issue head on, and I must admit – like Stephen Fry, I’m battling my vices. I like the use of “because” as a preposition insofar as it functions as an idiom, but the idea that it’s actually evolving into standard usage chafes a bit.
Usage that is obviously cutesy, like “because grammar!” works for me because it’s short and sweet and clearly done on purpose. But something like “because ingrained grammatical expectations” makes me feel like I’ve tripped on something. Because ingrained grammatical expectations do what?
So, in a completely irrational way, I feel like there are usages that work because they break the rules in the right way. In general, I tend to limit my grammatical criticisms to situations where I genuinely can’t follow the author’s train of thought, as when a passively constructed sentence neglects to name a subject. Pro-tip: if you can add the words “by zombies” to the end of a sentence and not contradict anything internally, you’ve left out the subject of the sentence. Is this still my vice crying out, or can I claim clarity on this one?
My overly specific personal pet peeves aside, I love the malleability of language. While linguistic paradigms are somewhat necessary as guidelines to what people currently understand, they’re really just fluid guidelines. Language is like myth – it is alive, not canonized. Idioms aren’t just cute little oddities that are granted exception to the rules of language, they show the growth and decay and change of language.
For more on this issue – and for the delightful revelation that using “ax” in place of “ask” dates back to Chaucer – check out this NPR article by Shereen Marisol Meraji and “15 Funny English Idioms You May Not Know” from lifehack.org.