Tuesday, February 09, 2010
One of the bookcases I had in the hall was collapsing under its load, so I decided to weed out some of the books I have stashed all over the house. It's hard to throw a book away, though I have done it several times when I moved to a new place. Still, so many of them have come with me, even though I knew I would never actually use them again.
This time I promised myself that I would let many of them go. One that I trashed was the Harbrace Handbook. It was the definitive resource for proper grammar, punctuation, and form when I was in college. I feel as if it is a relic from a time when things like unsplit infinitives and gerunds were important, when objects of prepositions were carefully placed inside beautiful sentences. Is the subjunctive voice still taught? Does my old kindergarten workbook "If I Were Going" still have meaning?
Well, as one who loved to diagram sentences, one who believed that words produced thoughts rather than vice-versa, that language creates emotion and belief systems more than actions do, I was very sad to put the Harbrace Hanbook into the garbage bag. I know, though, that I no longer need to know on which side of the paper the inside address of a business letter should be, or if the salutation should say "Dear Sir" or "To Whom it May Concern." I don't need to know the difference between a proper business letter and a personal letter. It doesn't really matter if I say "he didn't" or "he don't." Why not say "between you and I" instead of between you and me"? Was I correct in putting the question mark outside the parentheses, or since the quote comes at the end of the sentence, should the question mark come before?
At one point in my life it would have mattered very much, and I must confess, if I were to be truthful, it still matters very much. But things have changed since I regularly thumbed through the Harbrace Handbook. Language has changed and its significance has changed. Fussing over language has become irrelevant for, in part, its contribution to making class distinctions.
Dare I say that it is not in the best interest of humanity to allow so-called superficialities to sink to the lowest common denominator? I do, but I still tossed the Harbrace Hanbook. We chose our priorities.