One of the symptoms of America’s growing cultural malaise and the slow death of our language as we know it is a general sense of confusion as to how words relate. I am not simply referring to items like the dearth of “whom” that one sees in modern writing and speech, but rather to the unavoidable fact that people no longer seem to understand how words fit together. One area commonly problematic is prepositions.
Perhaps you remember them from grade school: they’re those funny words that describe spatial or vector relationships.
- “The cat slept under the car.”
- “Over the river and through the woods, to Grandmother’s house we go.”
- “A screaming tore across the sky.”
There is an old canard that ending a sentence with a preposition is a mortal sin in the Church of Grammar, but in fact this rule is a holdover from the Latinate part of English: in Latin, it isn’t possible to end a sentence with a preposition. Thus:
- [ostensibly] Wrong: “Who am I speaking to?”
- [ostensibly] Right: “To whom am I speaking?”
As a matter of fact, this rule is unimportant, except perhaps the most archaic of professors and lingual purists. It might sometimes sound better to move the preposition inside the sentence (as with the above example), but in many instances, it makes for an awkward sentence.
What is considered improper, at least so far as I am concerned, is using prepositions that make no sense within their context. Here are a few examples:
- “…the sexual predation on young girls…” [incorrect relationship]
- “Get off of me!” [unnecessary “of”]
Of course, one can probably understand the intent of the sentence to mean the “sexual predation of young girls,”1 but it nonetheless makes for stuttering and awkward prose.
The misuse of “literally” is one of my biggest gripes. Another of the symptoms of lingual death is the lack of understanding of turns of phrase. “Relatively” has come to be a vanilla term of degree, rather than a specific qualifier that relies on another implied object for comparison. For instance:
- “It is relatively warm out.”
- “It is somewhat warm out.”
- “It is warm out, considering that it is March in Minnesota.”
Modern usage would accept the first for either of the latter two, and I think we’re losing a lot by doing so. But I’ve come to accept this foible. What I can’t accept is people use “literally” when they don’t mean something literally.
You might say, “I was laughing so hard I literally cried!” because one might indeed laugh so hard that tears come to his or her eyes. However, “I was laughing so hard I shit myself”2 is doubtless a malapropsism, because the speaker most likely did not defecate in his or her pants. What they mean is “figuratively shit myself,” that is, s/he is using the loss of bowel control as comic hyperbole in order to express the strength of her/his laughter.
But no one says “Man, I was going so fast, I was figuratively flying down the road.” No they continue to figuratively mangle poor “literally” in a show of lingual oneupsmanship.
Perhaps the most perfidious of grammar mistakes is the misplaced modifier, an error rendered almost moot by its ubiquity and its general unimportance. When I say “general unimportance,” what I mean is that in the vast majority of instances, the misplaced modifiers I’ve seen can and are understood as they are meant, not how they they are written. Here’s an example I just read today:
“I only switched from Slackware [to Gentoo] two or three years ago.”
Read literally, this sentence means that the speaker only switched and did nothing else. What he really means is that he “switched from Slackware only two or three years ago.” The modifier (“only”) has to immediately precede the part that it is modifying. Now, any reader will understand the intention of the sentence, in part because “switched” is not a pivotal point of the sentence. Here is another example with limiting modifiers where the difference may be crucial:
- My dearest, I only have eyes for you.
- My dearest, I have eyes for only you.
The former states the speakers has eyes—and nothing else—for the object of his affection, whereas the latter concerns the speaker’s monogamy—only the object of his affection has his gaze and no one else.
My guess is that you’ve probably heard the former version many times before and never thought anything of it. Likely, you hear this sort of thing and never think anything of it, but it’s good to get into the habit of placing modifiers correctly, if for nothing else than to avoid the likely rare but inevitable disaster when such a thing is crucial to meaning.