As I was reading Maureen Dowd’s cleverly titled column “Ich Bin Ein Jet-Setter” about Barack Obama’s world tour, the phrase “he will have to successfully complete a number of tasks” jumped out at me: yet another split infinitive appearing in what is arguably our nation’s most illustrious newspaper, The New York Times, written by one of the nation’s top columnists. I don’t mean to pick on Ms. Dowd; everybody — and I do mean everybody — does it these days. Splits their infinitives, that is. You know, as in Star Trek‘s “To boldly go,” which ought in proper English to be “To go boldly.” Somehow the correct form just doesn’t have the panache of the incorrect, though it may just seem so to me since the incorrect one is the one I’m used to.
That last line was incorrect too, by the way. One isn’t supposed to end sentences with prepositions, as I just did — on purpose, may I add, to make a point. I ought to have written, “the one to which I’m used,” but who on earth talks like that? “The one to which I’m accustomed” sounds better, and for writing it’s fine, but in conversation it sounds pretentious. Same with who and whom: those of us who know the difference will in most cases write “Whom did you see?” but in conversation say “Who did you see?” Of course, which to choose, the correct but pretentious-sounding or the incorrect but normal-sounding, depends upon who you’re speaking to (which should read “to whom you are speaking”).
I realize I fixate on grammar more than the average (or ought I to say normal?) person, but my recent hospital stay kept grammatical errors in the forefront of my mind. Just about every nurse in that hospital told me to “lay down” or “lay still” or “just lay there,” when in fact each of those verbs should have been lie rather than lay. I have no idea why, but this is the error that irritates me more than any other. I have said “lie down” to my children from birth, but they all say “lay down” since everyone else they hear, including the teachers and aides at preschool, says lay rather than lie. Now that we are homeschooling (i.e., not paying other people to teach our children to use incorrect grammar in place of the correct grammar they learn at home) perhaps that will change.
A grammatical error that bothers a lot of people oddly enough doesn’t bother me: can vs. may. I know the difference of course, but grew up in a family that used can (be able) instead of may (be permitted), but that’s no excuse, since my mother says lay instead of lie and I broke that habit. I’m not entirely sure, but I think I say may sometimes and can sometimes, but I know my children always say “can,” except Cordelia, who says “may” a lot but misuses it, asking, “May you…?” instead of “Will you…?” I’ve explained a thousand times that “may” is for “May I…?” but she does right on saying “May you…?” and “Can I…?”
In her controversial book The Nurture Assumption, Judith Rich Harris made the point that children speak like their peers, not like their parents, which is why children of immigrants speak perfectly unaccented English and when they do speak their parents’ native tongue, they never reach the level of proficiency they have in English, and English is the language in which they dream. This is true of class-based accents as well; the example Harris gives is Margaret Thatcher, who came from a working-class family but spoke with the upper-class accent of her classmates at the elite school she attended on scholarship. The linguistic arguments aren’t the controversial part of the book, by the way. The uproar over the book was because Harris argued that it was peers rather than parents who were responsible for shaping not just language and accent, but personality and behavior as well. The book sparked reviews with titles like “Do Parents Matter?” and much passionate insistence that in fact they do. I finally got around to reading the book only recently, and it’s worth it’s own blog post, so I’ll say no more about the socialization debate here, and say only that I think she’s dead right as far as language is concerned.
Nevertheless, I will not take my children’s poor grammar lying (not laying) down, and will continue to go boldly (not to boldly go) on trying to fight the good fight as well as I can (not may).