Friday, June 03, 2011

At least be consistent

People have always complained about others' language use and it's probably part of human nature to find the accents, vocabulary and mannerisms of another group of people - Geordies, Brummies, Yardies, Americans, teenagers, poshos - upsetting and annoying. But when commentators set themselves up as linguistic authorities and tell other people that their language use is "wrong", they'd better make sure that they are actually right.

Kevin Myers, writing in today's Irish Independent, is not one of those people. In his article Omigod, this linguistic gibberish is, like, so gross he gets quite upset about what he calls the spread of "pseudo-American" English among the Irish middle classes and their teenage offspring, but he's initially exercised by the "common and lazy usage" of different than as opposed to different from, something he praises Michelle Obama for getting right while all around her everyone else is getting it wrong.

That's fair enough in many ways. Historically, there's been a pattern of usage that suggests different from is preferred to different than in formal English. However, that's changing and there appears to be a gradual shift taking place - perhaps through slips and errors, but perhaps through analogy with other, similar structures - towards different than. Language change is often a slippery beast and it can happen for all kinds of reasons.

Where Myers is on shakier ground though is in his insistence that "(Michelle Obama) correctly used the preposition rather than the relative conjunction, which -- for example -- the comparative adverb "better" would have attracted: hence, "different from" and "better than"." The problem here is that amid all his seemingly knowledgeable grammar talk, he comes up with a word class - relative conjunctions - that just doesn't exist. We've got relative pronouns (words like which and that, used to introduce relative clauses) and we've got conjunctions (and, but, because, if) but there's no such thing as a relative conjunction.

You could say that this just doesn't matter and I'd be tempted to agree. But if you're trying to come up with a rationale for a "rule" you follow - and more importantly, a prescriptivist rule you seem to want others to follow too - at least get it right.

For more on similar arguments about language usage (Language Discourses on ENGA3), you could have a look at this post about Simon Heffer's terrible Strictly English and this post about Henry Hitchings' excellent The Language Wars.

My get-out clause, before anyone points out any grammatical shortcomings in this (or any other) blog post, is that I'm not telling other people what they should or shouldn't do.

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