Bench Memos

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Nature and History in American Grammatical Development


(Sorry, just a play there on my favorite recent book on American politics.)  Ed, at the risk of sending our regular readers screaming off to other sites, I’ll reply to your very good questions:

1.  It’s not just my “embrace of arbitrary convention” that is of interest here.  It’s everyone’s.  That’s what makes it convention–and what constitutes the nexus where nature and convention seem to touch, as a convention becomes “second nature.”  (Far more interesting is your knowing deviation from it, with the costs and risks in misunderstanding that accompany it.)  But I take it you are more interested in the convention’s arbitrariness.  In matters of grammar, some conventions are rooted in the nature of the language and its own internal logic; others are wholly arbitrary.  I think that putting periods and commas inside quotation marks falls in the latter category–the “merely” arbitrary.  Some rules may even inhabit a third category: the arbitrary convention that runs against the grain of the language’s nature.  In that category, for instance, I would put the rule against split infinitives (an odd import from the alleged logic of another language altogether but wholly arbitrary in English, and rather a bother).  In general I obey this rule anyway because it’s been around a long time and one is never thought a boob or a boor for obeying it.  What irks you, I think, is that you see the rule on quotation marks in this third category and want a rule that responds to what you see as the language’s logical nature.  Rebelling against current practice, however, causes all sorts of (mis)perceptions that you don’t know what you’re doing.

This is a long way of saying in answer to your question that yes, I obey all conventions (even if I sometimes treat Stop signs like Yield signs) while feeling free to complain about them if I don’t like them.  Since usage evolves, some conventions are in process of contestation–formation of possessives where there is a terminal “s,” or the barbaric pluralization of verbs after “everyone,” as you note.  While such things are contested I will, in true conservative fashion, stick to the old way.  One is never thought incorrect to do so, only (at worst) old-fashioned.  And as long as I contest them, they remain contested and not settled.  So there.

2.  Your way with possessives may indeed be cleaner and more “rational.”  This is not sufficient to constitute a recommendation.  See Burke.

3.  For the principles of my attachment to the arbitrary, see number 1 above.

4.  Your “humble gropings” are, to the contrary, a form of proud defiance of the “organic community.”  You might be praised for your bravery, but as Aristotle taught, courage can shade over into foolhardiness.  I repeat that how others perceive you when reading is pivotal here.  The writer should not go out of his way to be thought ill of (ouch, a dangling preposition) as a writer.  We expect to be rebuked for our opinions, but not for our periods.

5.  The good judge was possessed of very Minor Wisdom indeed!

All in good fun, Ed.  Now we should return our readers to their regularly scheduled programming!


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