Wednesday, April 25, 2012


Errors in the Use of Words: Mistakes of Purists from 1905


In The Art of Writing & Speaking the English Language (The Old Greek Press, 1905), Sherwin Cody refers to his pocket-sized book as a book of quick study rather than an exhaustive reference. So rather than correctly and strictly adhering to rules, this book aims to "add knowledge of the differences and shades of meaning, fine distinctions in the values of words, and variety of expression."

Through his book, Cody says he has "tried to lead the student to a nicer discrimination in the meanings and values of words in common use, and to avoid making a pedantic prig of him. While purity of language is greatly to be desired, nothing is more amusing than to read the tirades of the purists."

He continues, "There is a vast amount of rubbish afloat about good and bad usage, and I know no class of pedants more disagreeable than those who set up to correct the English of everybody else. I want to make language freer more accurate, and more expressive, not stiffer, drier, and deader. (How the 'stiffs' will carp at that word 'deader'! Let them!)"

In the late 1800s, every time a comprehensive/official/correct book by one of the purists came out, a host of fellow purists waited in line to tear it down. Cody said that it got to be so that "it became dangerous to open one's mouth."

(This sentiment has a modern-day ring to it, doesn't it?)

He then goes on to say that this is all wrong. "Language is for the purpose of expression, and it is full of elisions, substitutions, comparisons suggested, and words used in certain phrases with meanings purely idiomatic and unexplainable. If we frighten ourselves with a bugaboo of errors, we shall become stiff and awkward."

Are you nodding your head as empahtically as I am?

As every writer and reader knows, such specious arguments about language still abound. We're told that language should not be like this, but should be like that.

For example, in Cody's day, he said that they were told that a sentence should not end with a preposition. But Cody says, "Throwing the preposition to the end is one of the most thoroughly established idioms of the language."

In 1905, Cody said that it is alright for it to be so. But aren't we still fighting that battle to this day? So which rules are our modern-day pendants referring to when they say that it is incorrect usage of grammar for the sentence to end in a preposition? Eighteenth century ones?


1 comments:

Keira Soleore said...
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