I grew up in a family of Grammatical Puritans–English teachers on all sides. It might be permissible to become bored with grammar-reminders, but I’d damn-well-better-not become bored OF them. Or end a sentence with a preposition. Or split an infinitive. Or use “who” when “whom” would be correct (or the reverse). I was the only waitress I’ve ever known who felt obsessively obligated to inquire, “With whom shall I leave the check?” And I earned the enmity of my kindergarten teacher–who tried to make me say “If I was“–when I trumped her attempted correction by informing her that “‘If‘ takes the subjunctive.” Ha, take THAT, Bossy Lady!
If I were a little more wise (and a little less smart), I’d have kept my mouth shut. My contribution to her linguistic education was not well received.
This isn’t to say that I use flawless grammar, either in my daily speech or in my writing–though it’s generally a deliberate choice, and I generally do know what rules I’m breaking. (I’ll just call my deviations a “stylistic choice,” ahem. That should cover a multitude of sins…)
Nor can I always articulate those rules which were so deeply ingrained during my early life in Grammatical Boot-Camp. When asked in class to define “Preposition,” all I could say was, “It’s what you don’t end a sentence with.” (ha, just playing.) Winston Churchill’s take on this one, following an editor’s clumsy correction of his writing to avoid a prepositional ending, was the scathing retort: “This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put.” Very Yoda-esque wisdom…
We have some Rules in our absurdly amalgamated language which really don’t make any sense, stemming from early idolization of other languages and imitation of their rules. Take the whole splitting-infinitives prohibition… In Latin you can’t “split an infinitive” because the infinitive is a single word. “Ire,” for example, means “to go.” You can’t stick another word in the middle of the Latin infinitive, but there’s truly no logical reason why we shouldn’t be allowed to add an adverb between the two words that make up the English version. (You know, as in “to boldly go“…) No reason except the fact that once-upon-a-time Latin was deemed the “most proper language,” and therefore the one to emulate.
So there we have it: a language with crazy-ass rules which are indelibly emblazoned in my crazy-ass head. I’ll tell you right now, though–I’m not so crazy as to boldly go and tell Captain Kirk about that infinitives-thingy. I learned that lesson in Kindergarten.
Post-script 11/5: This was in the paper this morning–couldn’t resist adding it here. :)
If you have three minutes and want a chuckle, this is the State of the Language Address (okay, a funny poem) by Taylor Mali: