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Beer: English Grammar and When to Follow the Rules

29 Jul
A wreath Kolsch Beer - LA Times of Kölsch.

Image via Wikipedia

Six years ago Marcus wrote a blog post that presented English grammar “as an envelope of suggestions rather than a tight box of persnickety rules.”  He took his cue from Saul Bellow, who once used “which” when he should (grammatically speaking) have used “that.” As Bellow said, “‘Which’ sounded better than ‘that,’ and I do go by sounds as well as by grammar.”

Tonight we were chatting, and somehow began discussing words that represent no fixed quantity and thus cannot have a singular or plural form.  For example, deer never becomes deers and fish never becomes fishes (except when Three Dog Night sings “Joy to the World.”)

And beer never becomes beers, unless it is explicitly quantified (“I’ll have two beers, please.”) But Marcus didn’t know that because people use “beers” loosely all the time.  Pi Wen strongly argued that you can never use beers without quantifying it, and she was right.

But Marcus argues that actual usage trumps formal rules.  Even if something is not proper it can still be correct.

An analogy–if no drivers observe a stop sign because there is never any traffic on the perpendicular road, are they really doing anything wrong?  Is it the fault of the county for not keeping up with road conditions, or of the drivers for not following the law?  Legally the answer is obvious, but socially it is much less clear. Likewise when grammar does not keep up with widespread usage.

This is a chicken-and-egg argument; should grammar dictate usage or should usage drive grammar?  Really both happen, and the language as a whole remains stable.  Meanwhile we each must decide how much the finer points of English grammar matter to us.

Pi Wen understands Marcus’s point, but she begs to differ. She believes proper grammar should lead usage. Many wrongs do not make a right. EXCEPT, when a writer who knows the rules deliberately breaks them for artistic purposes. As William Safire wrote in the postscript of Blurbosphere, “Good writers are free to break the rules of grammar, but their freedom gains meaning when they know the rules and overrule them only for an artistic or polemical reason.”

Please vs. Please

27 Jul

“Can we take your car, please?” I asked Marcus this evening as we were getting ready to go out for dinner. Marcus thought I was pleading because of the way I used “please”. But I thought I was just being polite.  I was surprised by Marcus’s comment but yet, I’m not too surprised because another colleague has made a similar comment about my usage of “please.” I didn’t know “please” has a pleading connotation until then.

English is my second language. I first learned English in Malaysia, which means I learned British English, not American English. Perhaps this sense of please (as in pleading) is unique to Americans only, while the polite sense of please is more common for the Queen’s English speakers? Alas, a search on Google didn’t help.

Perhaps my lack of awareness of the pleading sense of please is a limitation due to English-Chinese translation. My native language is Chinese. In Mandarin, “please” means “請”, which means a polite request while “plead” in Mandarin is “求,” which is a different character.  So by default, I use please to be polite to other people.

“Will you please be patient and let me finish my thoughts?” I can see that I’m pleading with you to be patient with me. “Please, have a seat while I finish this blog and we can go for a drink.” Now, here I’m being polite, am I not?

Ah, all the subtleties and nuances of language. I’ve decided to just live and learn, and be prepared to be surprised (pleasantly or not) whenever a native speaker comments on my English usage.

Now can we please take your car? It’s cold out and I just want to go get something warm to drink. So please hurry up already!

[Marcus appreciates this post, but in all honesty he only thought Pi Wen was pleading because it’s such a hassle to drive in and out of our garage. His car is parked outside.]

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