Have you ever passed by a “No Trespassing Without Permission” sign on someone’s private property and felt the urge to take out an enormous red pen and cross out “without permission”? Of course, it would be vandalism, in addition to trespass, to enter the person’s property and cross the words out. It would also be a futile effort to rid the world of redundancies and other grammatical errors.
Such grammatical errors bothered Richard Lederer enough to write a couple of books about it, including Crazy English. Published two decades ago, this book is a humorous account of the grammatical aberrations and errors that make English an interesting — and sometimes frustrating — language to read, write, and speak.
The way Lederer highlights English’s craziness makes portions of the book reminiscent of the way Dr. Seuss played with words in such books as One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish. For example, Lederer asks:
If the plural of tooth is teeth, shouldn’t the plural of booth be beeth? One goose, two geese—so one moose, two meese? One index, two indices—one Kleenex, two Kleenices?
Some chapters are more interesting than others, but Crazy English is an enjoyable read overall with a somewhat serious message: that, at least to some degree, we can and should rein in (not “reign in”) the improper uses of words and phrases.** While I agree that we should make a good faith effort to abide by the proper rules, those who take it too seriously either end up looking like schmucks or risk getting upset when the rules of the language betray them, as English inevitably will; ask anyone who insists that “But” cannot begin a sentence, that “peruse” is not a contronym/Janus Word, or that French spacing is required.
It is practically impossible to halt the organic evolution of English, particularly with the ubiquity and reach of the Internet. As my friend Jaclyn said in her post, On Authors and Conversations:
It’s 2013, and the world has shrunk to the size of a microchip, and in many ways, that’s a great thing. There have never been so many conversations as there are going on right now, at this very moment. It has never been so easy to connect with others…
These uncensored conversations are full of “incorrect” grammar, regional usages, and made-up words that can spread and take hold faster than ever before. With this pace of change, Lederer’s two-decades-old book feels dated. It contains few technology-related words and a couple of its gendered examples no longer ring true (at least to me), such as when Lederer asks rhetorically, “Why can you call a woman a mouse but not a rat — a kitten but not a cat?” I’m pretty sure men and women are equally capable of being unprincipled, and thus “rats,” and, for other reasons, probably “cats,” too.***
The point is that the rules will change on us, whether we want them to or not, and people who make mistakes will only resent us if we correct them (not that I am a grammar expert). What may seem like a redundancy today may take on a meaningful nuance tomorrow as a result of changes in technology or usage.
So, there’s no reason to commit vandalism, and, unless you’re an English teacher charged with teaching the next generation today’s rules or an editor expected to uphold a certain standard, there’s no reason to bring out the red pen or even fret about other people’s apparent misuse of the English language. We just have to learn to live with the flexible and ever-changing rules, like C.S. Lewis did.
In this 1956 letter, Lewis explains:
[T]here are no right or wrong answers about language in the sense in which there are right and wrong answers in Arithmetic. “Good English” is whatever educated people talk; so that what is good in one place or time would not be so in another.
The whole letter, including Lewis’ timeless advice on what “really matters” in writing, is worth perusing, whatever you think that word means.
*The image above is from Merriam-Webster.
**Not in every chapter. Lederer takes offense at redundancies, certain eponyms, and certain retronyms, for example, while being more accepting and appreciative of other changes to our language and culture. He concludes, “what [words] once meant is not necessarily what they mean now. Words have life after birth. Words wander wondrously.”
***dictionary.com provides “a woman given to spiteful or malicious gossip” as the fourth definition for “cat”