Friday, May 16, 2008

When Two Wrongs Make a Right

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

I remember learning a term in college: reactionary. It meant somebody who reacts negatively and strongly to any social or political change. I think we can apply that term to language as well. I’m not a reactionary, but I suppose I’m a conservative when it comes to language. I find I have to push myself into accepting a change in the language that I don’t like or don’t want to stay as a permanent fixture. I usually don’t really accept the change; I just swallow hard and say something like, “Well, since so many educated native speakers now say that, it’s become ‘acceptable.’” It sometimes hurts to say that, especially if I’m gnashing my teeth, but I take a deep breath and do so. The thing is, I find myself saying that more and more often, and that tends to disturb me. I suppose I’ll have to get used to it, though; it’s the nature of language to change.

Here’s something that’s becoming “acceptable.” I can’t tell you how vividly I remember finding a big red mark an English teacher of mine had put through the word why in a sentence I’d written in a composition. That why was part of the phrase the reason why. When I questioned my teacher about it, she explained it was redundant. She reminded me that why means the same thing as the reason: He told me the reason he had done that. / He told me why he had done that. “You see?” she said smiling. “If we can substitute the reason with why, it shows you that they mean the very same thing, so using them together is a redundancy ― and it’s silly.” I’ve never forgotten that. My teacher really opened my eyes to the world of redundancies, which I spoke about in a previous piece on this blog. And you can bet the ranch that I’ve never said or written the reason why again.

Well, as the saying goes, “That was then; this is now.” I hear educated people say the reason why every single day, usually many times a day. I still cringe a little whenever I hear it ― a reflex action, you know ― but I’m going to develop a tick if I don’t stop cringing. Almost everybody says the reason why these days, so does that mean I have to say once again, “Well, since so many educated native speakers now say that, it’s become acceptable”? I suppose it does. (Can you hear me sighing?)

Here’s another example. I remember being taught that we should use each other when speaking about only two of something and one another when speaking about three or more. Come to think of it, I was taught the same grammar rule for between and among. Well, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard educated speakers throw that rule to the wind and use one another for just two people and use between for three or more. I just shake my head and wonder. I’ve found that even dictionaries and fairly recent grammar books now accept one another in place of each other. (I’m sighing again.) So can the same laissez-faire attitude towards between and among be far off? Probably not.

And what about less and the least vs. fewer and the fewest? Awhile back I was watching a hit TV show called The Biggest Loser. They had some trivia questions for the television audience, among which (not between which!) was, “Which of the following kinds of pie has the least calories?” Yes! They said “the least calories”! The writer who came up with that question thought it was fine. The graphic designer who mounted it on the screen thought it was fine. The narrator who did the voiceover thought it was fine. I guess the director thought it was fine. Everybody thought it was fine ― except me! At least, that’s the feeling I got. Well, if nobody thinks there’s a problem with it, who am I to decry that use? Do you see why I wonder if I’m just a conservative or a true reactionary? And I don’t want to touch on what I should do in the classroom with my ESOL students. No, no, don’t even go there! I still have nightmares over being forced to deal with explaining why it was okay to say two coffees when the lesson in our antiquated grammar book clearly said coffee was only an uncountable noun. Ugh!

So what’s your take on all of this? Are you an ultraliberal as far as these kinds of language change go? Or perhaps you’re a conservative, or even a reactionary. I’d really like to know if I’m all alone or if I have colleagues I can commiserate with. Tell me what changes you’ve noticed that you find either completely acceptable or you would like to see disappear from common usage. Talk to me!

Comments

Comment from Anonymous
May 23, 2008 at 5:21 am

Hi GG!

The reason why I am replying to your blog is that I would like to suggest that using “why” with “the reason” creates greater cohesion within the sentence. Would you agree?
I prefer to describe, not prescribe, language usage– and try to figure out why users of the language are doing what they are doing. I love that our language is changing- it gives us ownership, man! ;-)

Comment from Grammar Guy
May 23, 2008 at 6:05 pm

Hi, there! Thanks for commenting on this piece.

Your idea about combining “reason” and “why” is interesting, but I’d like to ask if you could elaborate on what you mean when you say it “creates greater cohesion within the sentence.” Could you do that for us?

I agree with your preference to describe rather than prescribe language usage, but being a language teacher, I don’t think I can always have that luxury. There comes a time when I have to tell English learners how they should say something. It may be looked upon as unfortunate by some, but teachers do have to make decisions at times on how any given element of the language should be presented to students and taught. It’s one of those occupational hazards, I suppose.

And perhaps that’s a good thing. After all, we don’t have an “Academia Real” like the one in Spain or its equivalent institution in France.

Thanks again for your comments and ideas. I hope you have a chance to elaborate on what you wrote.

Richard

Comment from Brett
June 7, 2008 at 5:57 am

Are you an ultraliberal as far as these kinds of language change go?

What changes are those? Far from being changes, they all seem like very reasonable continuations in the face of half-considered non rules.

Reason why
Ben Jonson used it back in 1637 and there are instances all the way back to 1225 at least. No change here. In fact, the proscription seems to be the innovation, with the American Heritage dictionary first calling it a redundancy in 1969. Indeed, why can often be omitted, but most usage guides call it idiomatic and find nothing wrong with it. Compare this to the way how, which truly is ungrammatical.

Between for two and among for more than two
Wrong. As the OED says, between “is still the only word available to express the relation of a thing to many surrounding things severally and individually, among expressing a relation to them collectively and vaguely.”

Each other vs. one another
It shouldn’t be surprising, then to find that whoever first imagined the rule about differences between each other and one another was similarly confused. The OED shows us that this distinction has never held in practice (though some people have obviously been deceived into following it).

As for less vs. fewer I’ll leave the research to you, but I’m sure you can guess what you’ll find.

So there you have it. It’s not a matter of change at all, nor of liberal versus conservative tendencies. Rather, it all comes down to one’s propensity for buying into invented rules, one’s susceptibility to the recency illusion, and one’s willingness to do some investigation to turn up the facts.

Comment from Grammar Guy
June 7, 2008 at 8:25 am

Thanks for your comments, Brett. You’ve made observations that take into consideration some points I hadn’t touched on, but we’re basically in agreement.

As far as some things being changes, I stick to that viewpoint, especially considering how I was taught grammar in my school days. It was the norm to state that “between” meant for two things and “among” for three or more. It was the norm to state that “each other” was for two people and “one another” for three or more.

As I stated in my piece, many – if not most – educated speakers don’t adhere to such “rules” these days, and although I may have a bias about the way they’re used due to how I was taught, I fully recognize that these variations are acceptable. That was my whole point.

As for some of them being changes, they’re changes as far as I’m concerned, and, after all, I was writing that piece from MY point of view. I was not pontificating and stating “this is the way it must be.”

Thanks again for your comments, Brett.

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