Friday, December 7, 2007

The Conjugations of Bush

George W, everyone's favorite murderer of the English language (as I'm sure he would be of other languages if he bothered to learn any) recently proved that he knows the very simple forms of the verb "to be," for which I applaud him. In a boring, ponderous speech strangely reminiscent of the ones he gave before the invasion of Iraq, he informed the American public that "Iran was dangerous, Iran is dangerous, and Iran will be dangerous." For his next trick, I'd like him to diagram the last verse of the song, "In the hole in the bottom of the sea." (The grammar geeks on this site would likely love that activity, wouldn't we?)

On a side note, I've always been frustrated with the way grammar is taught in the US, as I'm sure most grammarians are. When I first learned a foreign language, the concepts of conjugating verbs and declining nouns were ... well, foreign. And difficult. It took me years to realize this was partly because I was never taught the concepts for English. And, although English isn't quite as predictable as some languages (like German) in its grammar rules, that doesn't mean they have to be taught, or understood, in such a sloppy fashion. Surely there's a simple, methodical way of teaching the public how to use English correctly? Even George Bush, it seems is capable of learning the basics.


John Cowan said...

Hmm, where to begin?

Of course Bush has not "learned" how to handle the present, past, and future tenses of be. He acquired a command of these forms as a child as part of his native dialect of English, and it so happens that his dialect (like most white Americans) is close enough to standard American in this respect that he can use these forms freely in public discourse. He did not need to learn "grammar" to do this correctly, any more than you or I did.

Now it's true that English grammar is taught very badly or not at all in the United States, and indeed elsewhere in the anglophone world. Furthermore, what is taught is an inextricable confusion of (a) an obsolete and ill-conceived terminology and structure, much of which dates back to the days when all languages were thought to be Latin with different words, (b) the standard rules, loose and vague as they are, for producing written standard American English, and (c) a set of arbitrary shibboleths, spoken and written, that sometimes represent very real class distinctions, but in most cases are merely the concoctions of self-appointed experts with no basis in either the historical or the present usage of the language by those generally agreed to be the best users of it.
It is certainly overall the worst-taught of all the subjects in the regular school curriculum.


As for conjugating verbs and declining nouns, we have only one and a half verb conjugations in English, both of them basically too simple to deserve the name, and no case markings on nouns whatsoever (the 's does not work like a noun case ending in other languages). Each language needs a precise terminology of its own, though there are broad terms that work in all or almost all languages ("noun", "verb") and others that work well in particular groups of related languages.

Finally, Bush is not a murderer of the language. He has adopted, for political purposes, certain of the dialect features of his adopted homes (Texas and official Washington, D.C.) which he uses quite consciously to convey folksiness, trustworthiness, and solidarity with his base. His hesitations and stammers are probably closely related to this: they also disappear completely when he is talking about something he feels passionately about. He certainly is not a stupid man: the Air Force doesn't train stupid people to fly its fighter jets (them planes is expensive!).

But anyway, do keep posting! I miss the C‽.

Karen M said...

I received a copy of the Bushisms desk calendar for Christmas.

Guess I'll be making use of that for posting here over the next year...

goofy said...

Geoffrey Pullum:

Try to imagine biological education being in a state where students are taught that whales are fish because that is judged easier for them to grasp; where teachers disapprove of tomatoes and teach that they are poisonous (and evidence about their nutritional value is dismissed as irrelevant); where educated people accuse biologists of "lowering standards" if they don't go along with popular beliefs. This is a rough analog of where English grammar finds itself today. The state of relations between the subject as taught by the public and the subject as understood by specialists is nothing short of disastrous. The fact is that almost everything most educated Americans believe about English grammar is wrong. In part this is because of misconceptions concerning the facts. In part it is because hopeless descriptive classifications and antiquated theoretical assumptions doom all discussion to failure. Amazingly, almost nothing has changed in over a hundred years. The 20th century came and went without affecting the presentation of grammar in popular books or the teaching (what little there is of it) that goes on in schools. Today's grammar books differ in content only trivially from early 19th-century books.

Introvert Girl said...

Good grief, did I post that a month ago? John Cowan, please forgive me. I remember reading your letter and wanting to respond but fussy baby followed by crazy mother followed by Christmas bugginess got the better of me.

Of course, you're right about Bush adopting certain ways of speaking. But you can't expect me to believe that all the stupid slips on the Bushisms calendars are purposeful. No way. The guy just doesn't do well when he can't craft his statements beforehand--which, by the way, doesn't make him a bad person. A lot of people have the same problem.

And both you and Goofy there make excellent points about the English grammar system being antiquated. But come on, it's not that hard to learn. Is it? Does anyone know of a simple, methodical way to teach proper usage?

Speaking of which, nobody rose to the challenge of diagramming "There's a hole in the bottom of the sea." Please carve it on a slab of heartwood cherry fashioned as a quirky end table. I could use one.

goofy said...

It's not the grammar that's antiquated, it's the way of teaching grammar. There are books that attempt to teach grammar in a systematic, rational way, for instance Pullum's "Student's Introduction to English Grammar".

All grammarians could do with a little bit of linguistics:

Introvert Girl said...

Some grammar is antiquated -- case in point, the crazy rule about prepositions at the ends of sentences. Although I'm not sure if that's so much antiquated as just plain wrong, but we discussed it at length in a previous post.

I love linguistics. If I remember, William Timberman is the resident pseudo-expert there, but I could be wrong. Anyway, wanted to go to your link but the comments cut off the end of it.

goofy said...

try this

The rule about not stranding prepositions has never been a part of English grammar. It was invented by Dryden.

Most recent usage books reject it.

Introvert Girl said...

It wasn't invented by Dryden, but he was one of the most avid adherents to the concept that English grammar could only be correct if it followed Latin grammar. The furthest other fans of the 'rule' went was to state that they considered sentences ending in prepositions to be inelegant.

And most usage books from Fowler on do reject it, but it is to this day taught in American schools as one of the rules of English grammar. Why? I have no idea. Maybe because it's such an easy one to remember.

goofy said...

It's explicitly said to have originated with Dryden in MW Dictionary of English Usage page 764. "Evidently the whole notion of its being wrong is Dryden's invention."

It has been found in Old English writing, and there are some cases where it is mandatory, as in "what are you talking about?"

So I think my point is that some rules of prescriptive grammar are outdated or wrong, and that these rules have nothing to do with the grammar of English as it is used by people who are generally agreed to be the best users of English (John says the same thing above).

Introvert Girl said...

Reading my Fowler, it doesn't seem to have been Dryden's invention so much as his obsession, misplaced though it was.

You and John are right with your points about whom it's rejected by. However, that doesn't answer the question of why it's still taught so strictly in schools.

Gotta go now--hope to be on again tomorrow. Teething baby screaming!

John Cowan said...

[T]hat doesn't answer the question of why it's still taught so strictly in schools.

Because it fills up the time that could otherwise be used more usefully to teach people something about the language as actually spoken and written, but can't be because the teachers are as ignorant of it as the students?

Introvert Girl said...

Methinks you be right, John. Very sad.

Jeff W said...

Figaro over at Figures of Speech says

Every politician uses code words. What makes Bush different is his masterful way of using code words without the distraction of logic. He speaks in short sentences, repeating code phrases in effective, if irrational, order…He catapults his messages by leaving logic out of them. The result is what the poet Robert Frost called the “sound of sense” — the meaning you intuit from hearing people speak in the next room. You pick up the sense from the speakers’ rhythms and tone, and from an occasional emphasized word.

That's an additional (not substitute) take on Bush's idiosyncratic style.