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H.L. Mencken (1880–1956). The American Language. 1921.

VI. Tendencies in American

2. Lost Distinctions

THIS general iconoclasm reveals itself especially in a disdain for most of the niceties of modern English. The American, like the Elizabethan Englishman, is usually quite unconscious of them and even when they have been instilled into him by the hard labor of pedagogues he commonly pays little heed to them in his ordinary discourse. The distinction between each other and one another offers a salient case in point; all the old effort to confine the first to two persons or objects and the latter to more than two seems to be breaking down. So with the very important English distinction between will and shall. This last, it may be said at once, is far more a confection of the grammarians than a product of the natural forces shaping the language. It has, indeed, little etymological basis, and is but imperfectly justified logically. One finds it disregarded in the Authorized Version of the Bible, in all the plays of Shakespeare, in the essays of the reign of Anne, and in some of the best examples of modern English literature. The theory behind it is so inordinately abstruse that the Fowlers, in “The King’s English,” require 20 pages to explain it, and even then they come to the resigned conclusion that the task is hopeless. “The idiomatic use [of the two auxiliaries],” they say, “is so complicated that those who are not to the manner born can hardly acquire it.” Well, even those who are to the manner born seem to find it difficult, for at once the learned authors cite blunders in the writings of Richardson, Stevenson, Gladstone, Jowett, Oscar Wilde, and even Henry Sweet, author of the best existing grammar of the English language. In American the distinction is almost lost. No ordinary American, save after the most laborious reflection, would detect anything wrong in this sentence from the London Times, denounced as corrupt by the Fowlers: “We must reconcile what we would like to do with what we can do.” Nor in this by W. B. Yeats: “The character who delights us may commit murder like Macbeth … and yet we will rejoice in every happiness that comes to him.” Half a century ago, impatient of the effort to fasten the English distinction upon American, George P. Marsh attacked it as of “no logical value or significance whatever,” and predicted that “at no very distant day this verbal quibble will disappear, and one of the auxiliaries will be employed, with all persons of the nominative, exclusively as the sign of the future, and the other only as an expression of purpose or authority.” This prophecy has been substantially verified. Will is sound American “with all persons of the nominative,” and shall is almost invariably an “expression of purpose or authority.”

And so, though perhaps not to the same extent, with who and whom. Now and then there arises a sort of panicky feeling that whom is being neglected, and so it is trotted out, but in the main the American language tends to dispense with it, at least in its less graceful situations. Noah Webster, always the pragmatic reformer, denounced it so long ago as 1783. Common sense, he argued, was on the side of “who did he marry?” Today such a form as “whom are you talking to?” would seem somewhat affected in ordinary discourse in America; “who are you talking to?” is heard a thousand times oftener, and is doubly American, for it substitutes who for whom and puts a preposition at the end of a sentence: two crimes that most English purists would seek to avoid. It is among the pronouns that the only remaining case inflections in English are to be found, if we forget the possessive, and even here these survivors for an earlier day begin to grow insecure. Lounsbury’s defense of “it is me,” as we shall see in the next chapter, has support in the history and natural movement of the language, and that movement is also against the preservation of the distinction between who and whom. The common speech plays hob with both the orthodox inflections, despite the protests of grammarians, and in the long run, no doubt, they will be forced to yield to its pressure, as they have always yielded in the past. Between the dative and accusative on one side and the nominative on the other there has been war in the English language for centuries, and it has always tended to become a war of extermination. Our now universal use of you for ye in the nominative shows the dative and accusative swallowing the nominative, and the practical disappearance of hither, thither and whither, whose place is now taken by here, there and where, shows a contrary process. In such wars a posse comitatus marches ahead of the disciplined army. American stands to English in the relation of that posse to that army. It is incomparably more enterprising, more contemptuous of precedent and authority, more impatient of rule.

A shadowy line often separates what is currently coming into sound usage from what is still regarded as barbarous. No self-respecting American, I daresay, would defend ain’t as a substitute for isn’t, say in “he ain’t the man,” and yet ain’t is already tolerably respectable in the first person, where English countenances the even more clumsy aren’t. Aren’t has never got a foothold in the American first person; when it is used at all, which is very rarely, it is always as a conscious Briticism. Facing the alternative of employing the unwieldy “am I not in this?” the American turns boldly to “ain’t I in this?” It still grates a bit, perhaps, but aren’t grates even more. Here, as always, the popular speech is pulling the exacter speech along, and no one familiar with its successes in the past can have much doubt that it will succeed again, soon or late. In the same way it is breaking down the inflectional distinction between adverb and adjective, so that “I feel bad” begins to take on the dignity of a national idiom, and sure, in bad, to go big and run slow become almost respectable. When, on the entrance of the United States into the late war, the Tank Corps chose “Treat’ em rough” as its motto, no one thought to raise a grammatical objection, and the clipped adverb was printed upon hundreds of thousands of posters and displayed in every town in the country, always with the imprimatur of the national government. So again, American, in its spoken form, tends to obliterate the distinction between nearly related adjectives, e. g., healthful and healthy, tasteful and tasty. And to challenge the somewhat absurd text-book prohibition of terminal prepositions, so that “where are we at?” loses its old raciness. And to dally with the double negative, as in “I have no doubt but that.”

But these tendencies, or at least the more extravagant of them, belong to the next chapter. How much influence they exert, even indirectly, is shown by the American disdain of the English precision in the use of the indefinite pronoun, already noticed. I turn to the Saturday Evening Post, and in two minutes find: “one feels like an atom when he begins to review his own life and deeds.” The error is very rare in English; the Fowlers, seeking examples of it, could get them only from the writings of a third-rate woman novelist, Scotch to boot. But it is so common in American that when Mr. Harding used it in the first sentence of his inaugural address even his Democratic editorial enemies failed to notice it, and when I denounced it in the Nation it was vigorously defended. The appearance of a redundant S in such words as towards, downwards, afterwards and heavenwards is equally familiar. In England this S is used relatively seldom, and then it usually marks a distinction in meaning, as it does on both sides of the ocean between beside and besides. “In modern standard English,” says Smith, “though not in the English of the United States, a distinction which we feel, but many of us could not define, is made between forward and forwards; forwards being used in definite contrast to any other direction, as ‘if you move at all, you can only move forwards,’ while forward is used where no such contrast is implied, as in the common phrase ‘to bring a matter forward.’” This specific distinction, despite Smith, probably retains some force in the United States too, but in general our usage allows the S in cases where English usage would certainly be against it. Gould, in the 50’s, noted its appearance at the end of such words as somewhere and anyway, and denounced it as vulgar and illogical. Thornton traces anyways back to 1842 and shows that it is an archaism, and to be found in the Book of Common Prayer (circa 1560); perhaps it has been preserved by analogy with sideways. Henry James, in “The Question of Our Speech,” attacked “such forms of impunity as somewheres else and nowheres else, a good ways on and a good ways off” as “vulgarisms with what a great deal of general credit for what we good-naturedly call ‘refinement’ appears so able to coexist.” Towards and afterwards, though frowned upon in England, are now quite sound in America. I find the former in the title of an article in Dialect Notes, which plainly gives it scholastic authority. More (and with no little humor), I find it in the deed of a fund given to the American Academy of Arts and Letters to enable the gifted philologs of that sanhedrin “to consider its duty towards the conservation of the English language in its beauty and purity.” Both towards and afterwards, finally, are included in the New York Evening Post’s list of “words no longer disapproved when in their proper places,” along with over for more than, and during for in the course of.