Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Learn to grammar

By Brian Benson

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Ending sentences in prepositions is something up with which I will not put. And, neither should you. Also, please do not begin sentences with conjunctions. I will not apologize for grammar policing, but I do have an entertaining point that’s not quite as snobby, so read henceforth.

Among the greatest grammatical transgressions, some of the worst include using a possessive when one means to use a contraction, using only one comma in a three object series, ending sentences in prepositions, and writing ridiculous “he or she” constructs in an undying crusade to be linguistically diplomatic.

Using the masculine pronoun for a human antecedent whose gender is not otherwise specified upsets a lot of people and it is easy to imagine why. Many who disapprove of this usage argue that it supports a kind of implicit attitude that males are either more important or notable and point to an underlying sexism that permeates traditional language. But this does not consider a very obvious, similarly traditional, practice – using feminine pronouns for almost everything else. Nearly every country, ocean, nautical vessel and personification for things lovely or inspiring is referred to as being feminine.

These include, but are not limited to: liberty, nature, truth, knowledge, beauty, love, and justice.

These are all things for which people have traded their lives. Think about this: these are things worth defending to death. This is a truly profound thing – to willingly and knowingly terminate one’s own existence in exchange for protecting and preserving them. They have begun and ended wars, created and destroyed nations, and served as the fundamental bases for truly ethical and civilized behavior. This is an honor so poetic and great it dwarfs the privileges enjoyed by masculine pronouns in most every sense.

However, this may not be sufficient reason to convince some people. Frankly, I do not quite understand why. Compare transcendent and culturally refined ideas taking feminine pronouns to baser and more mundane objects taking masculine ones, and you might appreciate traditional language regardless of its nominally sexist history.

To be fair, I imagine this topic is not at the top of most people’s lists of things explosive and highly notable, so this may be a new light on an issue for he, she, (s)he, s/he, s-he, shim, her-him, he-she, or herm who is not so concerned with the woeful trend of increasingly clunky language.

But the problem is not just a slippery slope toward cumbersome word usage; there is also a problem of how future generations would approach classic texts assuming present tendencies become more popular.

Will people one hundred years from now read the classics and dismiss their ideas on the basis of what may be seen as open sexism? If they grow so accustomed to gut associations of traditional language with something it is not, will authors that contributed so much to our culture and philosophy be thoughtlessly disregarded by those who think themselves “up with the times?”

If you think this is a trivial issue, then I challenge you to consistently use only masculine pronouns instead of “he or she” or “they” in your speech for even a few days around campus and listen as people snip at you for it – and it would happen; believe me.

The real point I would like to make is that language works best when succinct and clear. Having a codified system of rules and syntax is not just an aesthetic point ¬– it is one of personal benefit as well. How many independent scenarios can you recall where core disagreements came about due to poorly communicated language? Or perhaps you recall a few conversations where you were using a key word in a way another person was clearly using differently. Can you feel how frustrated you were? Did you rapidly lose interest in communicating with this person as you got more flustered? This is what happens when people start saying things like “sick” when they really mean “good.”

Really, it is a terrible thing to sacrifice accurate and concise language to please those with delicate sensibilities. The whole mess almost reminds me of a few scenes from “Life of Brian” only the offended people aren’t acting and no one is having a good time.

Brian Benson is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]


2 Responses to “Learn to grammar”

  1. chris on October 28th, 2009 11:41 pm

    excellent article. good writing is under appreciated. as strunk said “omit needless words.”


  2. S.P. Sullivan on October 29th, 2009 10:28 am

    This was a great piece. I don’t know if I agree with the underlying thesis, though. Having a “codified system of rules and syntax” is definitely important, but the only real reason why a writer should know all these rules is so they can break them effectively.

    Language is an ongoing, organic process, so applying strict rules to it is like retrofitting a pre-fabricated addition onto an old colonial house: Some stuff just isn’t going to fit.

    You seem to suggest that the transition from “good” to “sick” is unnatural, but I’d say the opposite. Take the etymology of two similar-sounding words that are very unlike in meaning: awful and awesome. Meanings can shift, flip and turn on their side, because Homo sapiens is a fickle animal with a limited collective memory.

    It would be unnatural to put an embargo on that usage because some prescriptivist deemed it inappropriate.

    Great read, though!


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