Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Sum Ego

The widespread acceptance of a locution like “exact same” is surely indicative of the depths to which American English has sunk.  

J. A. F. Hopkins, Letter to the Editor, The New Yorker, issue of June 4 & 11, 2012
You see, when the world was new, the heavens young,
People lived differently . . . 

Juvenal, “Satire VI”  (Translated by A. S. Kline)

And then it all went downhill.


[E. B.] White, addressing the question of “I” versus “me,” in “The Elements of Style,” asks, “Would you write, ‘The worst tennis player around here is I’ or ‘The worst tennis player around here is me’? The first is good grammar, the second is good judgment.”

Joan Acocella, The New Yorker, issue of May 14, 2012


After which, skipping again to a different subject (in the meanwhile his voice had recovered its usual bored, mocking tone), he asked me if, a little while ago, I hadn't happened to pass by, on my bicycle, along the Mura degli Angeli. At that moment, he had been in the garden: he had gone out to see what shape the rain had left the tennis court in. But because of the distance, and also because it was almost dark, he hadn't been sure I was that person who, without getting off his bicycle, and with one hand against a tree trunk, was standing up there, motionless, looking down. Ah, so it had been I?--he continued, after I had admitted, not without hesitation, that, coming home from the station, I had indeed taken the road along the walls: and this, I explained, because of the inner revulsion I felt every time I tried to pass in front of certain ugly characters gathered opposite the Caffe della Borsa, on Corso Roma, or spread out along Corso Giovecca. Ah, it was I?--he repeated. He had been sure! But in that case, if it had been I, why hadn't I answered his shouts, his whistles? Hadn't I heard them? 

Giorgio Bassani, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (Translated by William Weaver)

It should be plain to any native English speaker who hasn’t a tin ear that William Weaver, in order to maintain what E. B. White and Joan Acocella believe is “good grammar,” has totally abandoned “good judgment.” But White and Acocella show no good judgment when it comes to understanding English grammar. “. . . is I” would be the correct grammatical formulation and “. . . is me” would be totally incorrect if we were all back in ancient Rome conversing at the Forum. That is, if we were speaking Latin. Unfortunately for our language, some centuries ago there came into existence in England the idea that Latin grammar was the paradigm for all grammars, and, thus, for English. After all, Rome was a Golden Age, was it not? (Of course, Juvenal knew better).

I think I can safely say, however, that most teachers and writers who (in referring to English) spew out the terms “good grammar” or “correct grammar” have no idea that they are using Latin models and that those models are not universal but unique to Latin. Consider: English is not a descendent of Latin; but French is. And what did that most splendid of all French monarchs, Louis XIV, declare? “L'état, c'est moi” (“The state, that’s me”).

So, if over time a descendent language of Latin abandons Latin grammar and develops a “correctness” that differs radically from its ancestor, how can English be tortured into a “correctness” that is not even that of an ancestor language?

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