Re: Common Errors in English

Subject: Re: Common Errors in English
From: "Mark Baker" <listsub -at- analecta -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Sat, 28 Feb 2004 17:21:23 -0500

Michael West wrote:

> All of that may have some basis in history, but it is not
> relevant to practical questions of usage. We have dictionaries
> and style guides to help us resolve mundane usage issues without
> requiring esoteric investigations into social history and Latin
> grammar.

Yes we do. And, of course, these dictionaries and style guides frequently
disagree with each other (more so the style guides than the dictionaries).
But the attitudes of the people who compile dictionaries, grammars, and
style guides are coming more and more to the view that they should try to
reflect the language as it is actually used rather than try to hold the line
on how they think it ought to be used.

> Moreover, the possessive usage (ten
> years' experience) is almost invariably the one recommended by style
> gurus and the one used in professional publishing.

Quite true. My original objection was to the argument made in favor of this
construction by such style guides. I know that I am with the majority of
users and against the majority of pundits on this one. But this is how style
guides get changed -- and they do get changed.

> In English, literate people don't write "two mens hats" or "one
> womans dress," nor do they consider them correct. Likewise,
> "ten years' experience" is understood by most of them -- without
> any reference to Latin grammar -- to be a possessive form.

Well then they are getting it wrong because it is, strictly speaking, the
genitive form, not the possessive. But the argument is essentially circular.
You are defining literate people as those who use this form and you are
defining this form as correct because it is used by literate people.

The truth is, language changes. What literate people do today is not what
they did a hundred years ago, or two hundred years ago, or five hundred
years ago. The changes happen for all sorts of reasons, including people
like you and me, who write for a living, having discussions like this one. I
know what most of the style guides say on this one. I am a professional
writer and I disagree with them, as is my right. You agree with them. That
is your right as well. Most of the actual literate public doesn't know and
doesn't care and never will. It is, after all, a trivial matter that only
the likes of you and me would waste our Saturday afternoon discussing.

Language is a democracy and we all get a vote. Style guides play a useful
role, but they are written by ordinary human beings living at a particular
time and place. We should respect them, by all means, for they represent
considerable thought and scholarship, but we need not be slaves to them.
(Unless, of course, we have a boss who tells us to.)


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