I have already reported on my amazement with amaze in the Bridging the Unbridgeable blog. Thinking it was clearly an example of American English, I was surprised to find this T-shirt in a Primark store in Scotland. Not only does it display the word amaze in big white letters, but it also includes another interesting word: totes.
Totes, a short form of totally, is frequently found in the company of amaze. The issue of Americanisms, American English words taken over into other languages or varieties, has been bothering the one or the other British English native speaker. Words and phrases such as to wait on or transportation have caused some emotional responses.
Recently, a tendency to shorten words can undoubtedly be detected. Whether totes and amaze are going to be fully adopted into British English and thus become legit words remains to be seen. The Oxford Dictionary included totes already into its online version. Is this a step towards its legitimisation?
Captain James T. Kirk, starship captain, adventurer and peacekeeper in outer space, is not only famous for his adventures on the USS Enterprise, but also for providing the frequently quoted opening sequence of the 1960s TV series Star Trek, which Trekkies know by heart and prescriptivists condemn.
You may ask yourself why prescriptivists wince when hearing this phrase. The answer is simple: the split infinitive to boldly go.
Split infinitives and the discussion about their acceptability are nothing new. Chapters have been filled, heated debates have been held, articles have been written. At the end of the day, prescriptivists keep on wincing when hearing split infinitives and the rest happily continues splitting them. The debate on split infinitives is just a snippet of the ever-ongoing prescriptivism versus descriptivism debate. Usually there are no problems in deciding what to use when and how. Borderline cases, however, which reflect disputed usage, keep the debate alive and well.
Although Captain Kirk and his crew were the first to boldly go and explore the depths of the universe, he was not the first to boldly split infinitives. Looking back, one can clearly see that infinitives have been split for centuries (Mittins et al, 1970). Unlike a simple solution to the debate, the source of it is easily identified. Having served as a role model for the English grammar, Latin can be identified as the troublemaker. The Latin infinitive consists of one word which receives modality by the addition of inflections. The rule about the inseparability of the infinitive marker to and the verb, thus, steams from English grammarians holding onto Latin rules (Tieken-Boon van Ostade, 2008). I hate to break the news, but as opposed to the debate, Latin has been long dead.
As long as the debate on the acceptability of split infinitives, as varied are the opinions of language experts on the issue. David Crystal (2006: 126), for instance, describes splitting infinitives as following “the heartbeat of English” and thus sounding more natural. Although Bryan Garner the author of Modern American Usage (1998), acknowledges and accepts the split infinitives, he still suggests avoiding them as long as the meaning is not affected.
To split or not to split often becomes a question of ambiguity. There is a clear difference in meaning in the following two examples, taken from Crystal (2006: 127):
They failed completely to understand the problem.
They failed to completely understand the problem.
Depending on what speakers want to express, they will have to choose whether they will split the infinitive or not. Some may consider the split infinitive debate as the nit-picking of prescriptivists, whereas others may see a point in their argumentation. Whatever the stance, a serious discussion of how language is used should never be neglected.
You may think that this debate is as old as the source of this usage debate, but in fact, the debate was popularised in the 19th century (O’Conner, 2009). One of the most influential publications on this matter was Henry Alford’s of A Plea for the Queen’s English (1866). Alford (1866) even argues that splitting infinitives is against common usage and having two choices is more than enough. Alford would be wincing non-stop when hearing today’s common usage. But what is it exactly? Do we split infinitives or do we avoid them? How do we use literally? What about the meaning of awesome? Do Americanisms still bug the British native speakers? Is English deteriorating? What does the general public consider to be proper English?These are the kind of questions I am interested in and hopefully (!), answers will be found to these questions with your help.
My request for current usage problems forms part of a wider research project called Bridging the Unbridgeable: linguists, prescriptivists and the general public. This project, which is run by Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade at the University of Leiden in The Netherlands, aims to investigate, among other things, attitudes to British English usage. A similar, though much earlier study was conducted in the 1960s by Mittins et al. (1970), who investigated the attitudes of British English speakers on 50/55 usage problems. Since then, no comparable study has been undertaken. More than four decades have passed and the English language has undeniably changed. Instant messaging, texting, chatting and tweeting have become important ways of communicating which cannot be ignored. Netspeak or textese, as calls it Crystal (2008) for example, the varieties used in online communication and texting, are often said to have a negative or deteriorating effect on English. Whether this is true or not, is disputed. Crystal (2008), for instance, enjoys the fresh breath of air which these new varieties bring us and watching language evolve.
In order to be able to investigate current usage problems, I would like to invite you to send me your own pet hates and thoughts on specific disputed language items. With your help a contemporary investigation of modern British English language usage will be conducted. Thus, all suggestions, comments or opinions are highly appreciated. Furthermore, usage polls about specific usage problems will be posted and you are kindly invited to share your attitudes to language usage. Having said this, the second usage poll is about the star of this blog post: the split infinitive.
Alford, H. (1866). A Plea for the Queen’s English.London: Alexander Strahan.
Crystal, D. (2006). The Fight for English.Oxford: OxfordUniversity Press.
Crystal, D. (2008). Txtng. The Gr8 Db8. Oxford: OxfordUniversity Press.
Garner, B. (1998). Modern American Usage. Oxford: OxfordUniversity Press.
Mittins, W.H. et al (1970). Attitudes to English Usage.OxfordUniversity Press.
O’Conner, P. (2009). Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language. New York: Random House.
Tieken-Boon van Ostade, T. (2008). “The grammars: Introduction.” In I. Tieken-Boon van Ostade (Ed.), Grammars, Grammarians and Grammar-Writing in Eighteenth Century England. p. 247-249. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.
Having studied English as a foreign language, I have been confronted with numerous grammar rules and comments on style during my schooling years. First, it was mainly about getting the grammar right, in particular the tenses. But once I moved on to studying English at an advanced level and at university, the focus shifted and style issues became increasingly important. Sometimes I was baffled by the red squiggles beneath words, phrases or sentences in my essays. My bewilderment was often left unresolved when asking the teachers for the reason of the red squiggles. Comments such as “You can’t say that in English”, “This is not proper English” or “That is too German” did not foster my understanding of what “proper English” was supposed to be. All I knew was that next time I would avoid this particular word, phrase or sentence.
The confusion about the nature of proper English is complete once you spend some time in an English speaking country. Seeing language being used by its native speakers can be an eye-opening experience, yet at the same time it can bring everything you thought you knew about a language into question. So what is proper English? What do British native speakers, the so-called general public, perceive as proper English? What is acceptable British English usage? Finding answers to these questions is the main focus of this blog. A detailed description of what Proper English Usage is dealing with can be found in the About section.