Our Changing Grammar

As a fan of the original Star Trek series, I well recall Scotty saying on occasion, “Ya canna break the laws of physics, Captain.” Well, the laws of physics may be immutable, but the laws of grammar definitely are not. Rules of grammar I learned way back when I was in elementary school have changed. Having been thoroughly indoctrinated as a child in the importance of correct grammar, I refuse to change with them. But try as I might to stem the tide of grammatical change, I know I cannot.

Changes in language usage do not come suddenly. They are gradual, sneaking up on us like a thief in the night. And so it is that I find myself asking the following questions:

When did “than” become a preposition?

I learned that than is a subordinate conjunction. To the grammatically challenged, for whom that sounds like gobbledygook, a subordinate conjunction is a conjunction that connects a main or independent clause to a subordinate or dependent clause. Examples of subordinate conjunctions are although, as (more about as later), as if, as though, because, if, since, than, that, though, unless, whereas, and whether. Generally speaking, most people use most of these conjunctions correctly without knowing or caring what they are called. However, than presents a problem. As a conjunction it is followed by a clause that has a subject and a verb. But often after than, the verb is omitted. It is merely understood. In this sentence, for example, “My brother is much taller than I am” the word “am” is often omitted, so that the sentence is shortened to “My brother is much taller than I.” Now ’fess up. How many of you would say it that way rather than saying “My brother is much taller than me”? But me is in the objective case, being used as the object of a (gasp!) preposition. But “than” is not a preposition. Or at least it never used to be. However, through frequent misuse, following “than” with an objective case pronoun has become so common, that poor, innocent “than” has been transformed (dare I say transmogrified?) into a preposition.

When did “like” become a conjunction?

Did you notice that in the list of subordinate conjunctions above I did not include “like”? I left it out because it is not a conjunction. Not in my grammar, anyway. It is a preposition. It is followed by a noun or pronoun object of a preposition. (I refuse even to discuss the horrendous and totally meaningless insertion of the word “like” into any sentence anywhere and the utterly inane use of it with a form of the verb “to be” as a substitute for “said” as in “I was like ‘Get out of here!’”) Here’s an illustration of the use (or misuse) that I am referring to: “Watch carefully and do the work exactly like I’m showing you.” In that sentence “like” serves as a subordinate conjunction. But it isn’t a subordinate conjunction. This would be the correct use: “Watch carefully and do the work exactly as I’m showing you.” This distinction has, however, apparently fallen by the wayside. “Like” should be used before a noun or pronoun not part of a clause, as it is above. For example, “Watch carefully what I’m doing and do it like that.”

When did it become a symbol of politeness (or possibly faux humility) to substitute “myself” for the grammatically correct “me” or “I”?

I see sentences like this more and more often: “The Senate committee consists of Senator Jones, Senator Smith, Senator Black, and myself.” Or this: “My friends Rhonda, Joanne, Kate and myself attended the tea.” In place of “myself” in the first example, “me” would be correct, and in the second sentence “I” would be correct. Myself is a reflexive pronoun. Reflexive pronouns reflect back on the subject and must be in the same person as the subject. For example, “I excused myself from attending the tea.” In this case, the subject is “I” and the first person reflexive pronoun “myself” reflects back to “I.” It is something I do to or for myself. I don’t see why people think it’s more polite to use “myself” in the way it is used in the first two examples above. Perhaps they believe it is a demonstration of humility. Or possibly they believe it is more emphatic. There is a correct way in which “myself” or any other reflexive pronoun can be used emphatically, and that is as an appositive. So what’s an appositive? A noun or, as in the case of “myself,” a pronoun that follows and explains or limits the preceding noun. In this example, “Mr. Jones, my former employee, entered and cursed me,” “my former employee” is an appositive explaining who Mr. Jones is.  An example of a reflexive pronoun used in this way would be “I myself gave the order to fire the employee.”

Do people who talk about feeling “badly” about something not feel bad about using “badly” incorrectly?

No, I suspect they believe they are being conscientiously correct. However, unless they are complaining about an impaired sense of touch, which prevents their feeling some surface correctly, they are using an adverb in a situation that calls for an adjective. In a sentence like this—“I feel so bad about having to miss the party”—“feel” is a linking verb (also known as a copulative verb). (I heard that snicker.) A linking verb is a verb that links the subject of a sentence with either a predicate noun or a predicate adjective. A predicate noun is a noun that refers to the same person as the subject, as in “Mr. Jones is the principal of the school.” Mr. Jones and the principal are the same person. The verb “is” links the two. A predicate adjective is an adjective that follows a linking verb and modifies the subject, as in “That handsome young man seems vain.” The adjective “vain” modifies, or describes, the subject “man” just as “handsome” and “young” do, but unlike them, it follows the verb “seems,” which is another linking verb. Still another linking verb is “feel” when it refers not to the sense of touch but rather to a state of mind or an inward impression. Used in this way it must be followed by an adjective, not an adverb. Therefore, you should say, “I feel bad about not always using correct grammar,” or “I feel bad that you are angry with me.”

You should, but many of you will pay no attention whatever to all this. Why? Because you now see these particular items used incorrectly so often that you may believe them to be the norm. And that is indeed what they are becoming. So I shall continue to use the forms that I still regard as correct, but you may adopt the now common usage and simply say, “The laws of grammar have changed.” I won’t hold it against you, though I’ll cringe when I see it on your written page. If I were editing your work, I’d probably give these errors a pass.

Just don’t let me catch you saying, “I was like, ‘she hates me; I know she does.’”

Incidentally, I do edit manuscripts for authors. If you are interested, visit my editing website, www. arucadienterprises.com

About E. Rose Sabin

Fantasy and science fiction author.
This entry was posted in editing, Spelling and Grammar, Writing and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Our Changing Grammar

  1. James Tucker says:

    I agree with the comment about the word “like.” When I hear someone using it in the way mentioned above, I tune out.

    I think another reason that people might use “myself” rather than “I” or “me” is because it sounds softer and and perhaps less committed. Using the word “myself” rather than “I” can provide some distance. I see this practice used in business communications. A sender will use “myself” rather than “I” when they want to seem more like a witness or bystander rather than part of the action. There might also be the thought that the words are flat out interchangable in all circumstances.

    • I agree, James, and it’s an example of the way grammar changes with usage. Technically it’s still incorrect by the rule book to use “myself” in that way, but frequent usage will undoubtedly make it correct, if it hasn’t already. I still cringe when I see it, because I was trained under the old rules, but I fully understand how those rules change with time.

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