Abominable words

A colleague informed us that today is National Grammar Day. He also has a desk calendar of Shakespearean insults, which often turn out to be strangely appropriate to what’s going on in our team, department and company. The combination of Shakespeare and grammar reminded me of the following quotation, from Henry VI pt 2:

Thou hast most traitorously corrupted the youth of the Realme, in erecting a Grammar Schoole … thou hast men about thee that usually talk of a noun and a verb, and such abominable words as no Christian ear can endure to hear.

Jack Cade was the leader of a popular rebellion in 1450. Wikipedia says that this rebellion was “one of the first popular uprisings in England that used writing to voice their grievances” but Shakespeare follows Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles (1587) and incorporates aspects of the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, which “was highly anti-intellectual and anti-textual” and “ha[d] people killed because they could read”. The real-life James Fiennes, 1st Baron Saye and Sele, the Lord High Treasurer (= Shakespeare’s Lord Say) was executed for treason.

I don’t celebrate National Grammar Day, mostly because of the militancy of the the organiser(s) (4 March = march forth (< geddit?) and partly because most of what is said about “grammar” is actually about spelling, punctuation, meaning, usage, variety and register (specifically other people’s) or one’s own superiority in knowing and caring about standards.

Actual grammar (“the study of the way the sentences of a language are constructed; morphology and syntax”) is interesting enough, though I have posted about all those other things.

A random example of interesting grammar: in the musical Into the woods (music and lyrics Stephen Sondheim, book James Lapine) the Witch says to the Baker:

It’s your father’s fault that the curse got placed
And the place got cursed in the first place!

I suspect that most or even all languages allow verbs to be made out of nouns or vice versa (I’d be in trouble with Jack Cade for saying that!). English has typical noun endings and verb endings, but allows for zero derivation; that is, for a noun to act as a verb (or vice versa) with no change to its form. This often has a bad reputation, but it’s a part of English and it’s here to stay.

In Korean, for example, verbs are always marked as such. To take an English loanword, 샤워, sha-wa sha-weo, shower, can only be a noun; the verb must be 샤워 하다 sha-wa sha-weo ha-da, do a shower. 

But there are rules. One document I worked on today had four instances of its’. There is no word its’ in standard English, or even in any established non-standard English. It’s means it is, and its means belonging to it.  

Jonathon Owen, of the blog Arrant Pedantry, has written at length about the pros and cons (mostly cons) of National Grammar Day.


3 thoughts on “Abominable words

  1. I suppose one of the “abominable words” of grammar would necessarily be “ejaculation”.

    In my role as music director, when March 4th was about to fall on a Sunday I would usually suggest the hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers” (followed by “get it?”).

    On a related note, I’ve maintained that the apostrophe is a spelling mark, not a punctuation mark. (The otherwise glorious “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” book spends an inordinate amount of time on the apostrophe.) It’s more so than ever now, with the explosion of proper names containing apostrophes that don’t seem to substitute for anything in particular.

    Re 샤워 — why the borrowing? Have Koreans never taken showers before the Americans showed up? 🙂 I’ve only seen that in Dunkin’ Donuts in Seoul when they had a “kiwi shower” (키위 샤워) flavor coolatta for a brief while (which caught my eye because DD didn’t have that flavor back in the States). Btw, I’d probably write it “syaweo” rather than “sha-wa”.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. In one master’s-level discussion, we had a bit of innuendo about the copula.

    I read somewhere that someone had been fired for teaching his students about homophones, but I’m sceptical. Homophonic music is obviously suspect as well.


  3. And of course there were the jokes, popular in the benighted 1950s, about the educators who were under suspicion for teaching improper fractions.


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