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Gary Grammar

by Gary Grammar

I love my native language, which happens to be American English. But I love and respect all languages because I believe the forms in which people think and speak shape their outlook of Life and their actions. If you listen to one speak who is knowledgeable of Hebrew, Greek or Latin, for instance, you find that these languages have many concepts, (word-pictures, if you will) which we do not possess in modern English. This is true of course, of all languages and it is fascinating to unlock the mysteries of others’ cultures and lives through learning about their languages. A by-product of being interested in languages is that you learn to be able to speak comfortably and correctly in your native language. Grammar is the study of the formal features of a language, the way words are used, and a thorough knowledge of grammar enables one to speak properly without having to think constantly about a correct form. Therefore, it is beneficial to commit to active memory (not rote) some of the rules of common practice which English uses. For instance, although you wouldn’t know it from listening to everyday speech around you, the words everyone, everybody, anyone, anybody, etc. are all singular in number and require a singular pronoun form to be used with them. Incorrect Example: “Everyone has their own way of doing things.” Correct form: “Everyone has his/her own way of doing things.” Or, the other correct form “All have their own ways of doing things.” All and their are plural, everyone and his/her are singular. Same mistaken example, different word: “Anyone can see their error in hindsight.” Once again, anyone is singular, therefore it must have his/her/its to match it. This mistake is so widespread that I cannot remember the last time I read or heard a correct usage. People on television make this error, writers make it, otherwise educated or knowledgeable people do also.

In my opinion, another interesting error is the problem of when to capitalize the word “to” in titles. The word “to” can have two functions in English -- one as a preposition in which it is not capitalized, i.e., “I am coming to the party.” The other function is as part of what is called the infinitive of the verb. In Romance languages such as Spanish and Latin, you memorize the infinitive (or unchanging root portion of the verb) so that you know later on what part of the verb an ending will be attached to. (More about all of this in another issue.) It is satisfactory to say that if the word “to” is followed by a verb, you are looking at in infinitive. For instance, to be, to eat, to live, to wear are all infinitives. Verbs are capitalized when used in titles in English. So, if a person wrote a story entitled “I Am Going To Wear My Favorite Shirt”, it is appropriate to capitalize the “to” in “to wear”, which is a verb. On the other hand, if a person wrote a story entitled “I Am Coming to the Party”, it would be appropriate not to capitalize “to” in “to the party”, as this is the preposition “to”. This illustrates one good, sound reason for studying a foreign language such as Latin or Spanish in which learning the infinitive is a primary necessity. Another error which occurs when using infinitives is when you place a word between “to” and its following verb. This is because the infinitive is actually one word, it simply appears as two words in English. Here is a classic example of this error, called splitting the infinitive: “To boldly go where no man has gone before.” Wrong. It should have been “To go boldly where no man has gone before.” Or “Boldly to go where no man has gone before.” This is an example of how helpful (and important) it is for people in television to take pains to know what they are doing before disseminating an error to the world. Most of us learn to speak our respective languages by hearing. We may study secondary languages by knowing the rules of practice, but hearing is necessary for meaningful speaking ability to develop. When an error such as the Star Trek example above circulates and percolates through society and comes to “sound” acceptable, it is extremely difficult to alter that perception in our “speech ears.” More info on judging errors based on their sounding right or wrong next issue. Later. -- GG

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