Archive for Tag: descriptive grammar

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!