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

Page 178


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. 26 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,” 27 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.” 28 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