Saturday, July 10, 2010

Deference and erroneous deference - a hobbyhorse

Deferring to a linguistic authority figure is always wrong but “she lives a long way from John and I” is doubly wrong.

Not only is the speaker deferring to an authority figure; but they have misinterpreted what the authority figure actually said. No teacher ever told you to put the nominative after a preposition.  Of all linguistic mistakes the erroneous deference grates with me most.  No child naturally says “from John and I”. You have to teach yourself to say “from John and I”.  And teach yourself wrong!  Bah!

A common instance of mere deference, as opposed to erroneous deference, is avoiding the split infinitive. It’s usually harmless but occasionally sounds a bit contrived.  The supreme example of a good split infinitive is “to boldly go”.  The context is the introductory text spoken at the beginning of Star Trek episodes : “To boldly go where no man has gone before”.  Does it work?  Yes. Does it sound good?  Yes. Therefore it's good English.

The rule against the split infinitive has indeed been promulgated, so in that narrow sense, deferring to it isn't erroneous.  But whoever promulgated the rule acted without authority, for there can be no authority in language.  (Apart, that is, from your humble servant.)

Note added since I first wrote this. The technical term for avoiding one grammatical trap only to fall into another is hypercorrection.

Ending a sentence with a preposition

Digressing from my theme, another rule that isn't a rule is “never end a sentence with a preposition”.  Actually it’s one of the glories of the Germanic languages that you can end a sentence with a preposition.  Churchill had his faults but he knew his English.  Once, when a civil servant re-cast a sentence of Churchill’s to avoid this alleged error, he reinstated the original word order adding in the margin: “this is the sort of pedantry up with which I will not put.”   The anecdote comes in many varieties and seems to be undocumented, but even so it’s one of those stories that just has to be true.  The version I have given comes from a fabulous English teacher I had when I was 12.

And no, fellow pedants, I don’t mean that my English teacher was mythical!


  1. "No teacher ever told you to put the nominative after a preposition." I'm not entirely sure a teacher ever told me what a nominative or a preposition are..! :-D I don't believe I was ever told what split infinitive is either.

    I'm afraid I have to admit to having no idea what you're saying here. From your very first sentence, baffled you have me.

  2. Way to go Alb, I thought it was just me!

  3. Ok, I take your point about this nominative stuff, but I hope you agree with me that “from I”, “by he” and “with she” don’t come naturally? And my point is that if they if they don’t come naturally, then they aren't English. If anyone says “from John and I”, their thought process must be along these lines: “I seem to remember a teacher once telling me that it’s wrong to say me. So I suppose I had better say from I – it sounds a bit strange but I'll get used to it in time.”

    PS in Trinidad English, “by he” and “with she” do come naturally, but that’s another story.