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The Indistinct Society
by I. M. Owen

It turned out it wasn't really Latin he wanted to know about. His instructor kept talking about things called nouns, verbs, adjectives' subjects, objects . . . in his 13 years in the Ontario school system, he had never heard of them

MOST OF MY working hours ?? the ones not devoted to writing for Books in Canada ?? are spent in copy?editing. I regard my function as being to revise a typescript for clarity, grace, and correctness, with as little interference as possible with the author's individual style. Clarity, grace, and correctness: those are the things I hope to defend in this department, and in that order of importance. (The greatest of these is clarity.) Why do I put correctness last? Partly because it is too easy to overemphasize at the expense of the other qualities. (Note that I just broke a rule: that wasn't a complete sentence.)

Certainly there are rules in English ?? communication would be impossible without them. But a sentence can be grammatically correct and still be a bad sentence. Here's an example that happens to be on my desk as I write this. (I'll disguise all examples drawn from my work by changing the content while retaining the structure.) The author wrote: "What typifies Ruritania today are the depraved morals of its peasant class." That's clearly incorrect; the subject of the sentence, "what typifies Ruritania," is singular and requires a singular verb. Now look at the sentence corrected: "What typifies Ruritania today is the depraved morals..." That's correct all right, but it still seems wrong, and is certainly graceless. The answer is to rewrite, using the passive: "Ruritania today is typified by..."

English is a flexible and constantly changing language, and it's symptomatic that so many people continue to write about it: the Americans have Simon and Safire, among others; in England, I hear on the CBC Arts

Report, my former colleague Bob Burchfield is writing a book intended to replace the irreplaceable Fowler; in Canada we did have Blackburn and will always have the indefatigable writers of letters of rebuke to the Globe and Mail. In the other language of our country there isn't so much room for discussion; in French you're right or wrong. But out here in the Indistinct Society we're on our own, and will gratefully accept guidance from anyone who presumes to offer it.

Yet there is such a thing as English grammar, and it must have a certain toughness to have survived recent trends in the educational system. A few years ago a neighbour's son who was a pre?meds student asked if he could consult me about Latin. He had thought it would be useful in his scientific courses if he took a course in introductory Latin in his spare time. I wasn't sure I could help, because my Latin is worse than rusty. (I decided not to discourage him by revealing that most of the scientific words he'd encounter would be from Greek.) But it turned out that it wasn't really Latin he wanted to know about; it was that the instructor kept talking about things called nouns, verbs, adjectives, subjects, objects; and he assured me that in his 13 years in the Ontario school system, in which he had done well enough to be admitted to a university, he had never heard of them.

I wasn't as surprised as I might have been, since recent experience in educational publishing had shown me that English teaching in Ontario was directed by people who rejected what they called "prescriptive Latinate grammar." After all, they said, English is a Germanic language, and to impose Latin rules on it is artificial. A specious fallacy: English did start out as a German dialect, of course, and if we want to read it in the early form now called Old English we have to learn it as a foreign language. From 1066 on, England underwent forcible French immersion for about three centuries; French, remember, is descended from Latin as spoken by Gauls. When English surfaced again as a literary language in the time of Chaucer it was filled with French words and constructions. And the "grammar schools" that dominated English education from the 15th century on were specifically set up to teach Latin and mighty little else. The reading and writing of Latin prose and verse continued to be the main component of the curriculum for the next 400 years. This meant that from about the time Caxton set up his press until modem times virtually all writers of English had been drilled in Latin grammar and naturally made it the basis of their style. To say at this late date that this basic grammar is unnatural is to throw out almost the whole corpus of post?medieval writing in English.

Writing rather than speech will be the main subject of these articles, as the title of the department suggests. Is there a difference between spoken and written English? Yes, but it's small, and should be kept to a minimum. I find it useful to say to writers, "But would you ever say that in conversation?" If the answer is no, it's almost always a visible improvement to change the phrase to something that the writer would say. For instance, don't write "do not" unless you want it to be read with a slight stress on "not." I'll return to this point in various connections.

This has been a preliminary canter through some of the opinions and biases that underlie what I will have to say about the written word. Most future columns will probably be made up of short discussions of specific points under separate headings, as if they were entries in a reference book. To keep the department going, I'll rely heavily on suggestions, queries, and contradictions from readers.


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