Dr. Gerry Turcotte


October 20, 2014

"And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language?"

Acts 2.8

A recent CBC segment featured a radio host who explained that she had received death threats following an unexpectedly controversial news story.

The letter, she said, was filled with spelling errors and it was signed: the Angle of Death! Which, let's be honest, is not quite as scary as an Angel of Death, except perhaps for Grade 6 students studying geometry.

The anecdote reminded me of a Michel de Montaigne quote: "The greater part of the world's troubles are due to questions of grammar." This in turn invoked a funny line by Jennifer Crusie: "His sentences didn't seem to have any verbs, which was par for a politician. All nouns, no action."

As a longtime professor of English, I have always been of two minds on the question of spelling and grammar. One part of me feels quite inflexible about the traditional rules. Certainly the essays I returned to my students when I first became a teacher will bear this out.

Over time, however, I have also encountered more reasons for flexibility than I care to report. For one thing, English, like so many lexicons, is an evolving language, and what we consider hard and fast rules today might be a mere 50 years old.

Try reading Old or Middle English for a lesson in how different today's words might look. Or, for those more inclined to be contemporary, look at the exhilarating diversity that specialist languages, rap or texting have introduced. GOK (God only knows!).

It is not so much that rules need to be broken, but rather that we need to remember how provisional and manufactured many rules actually are.

Sometimes a broken rule can make a sentence sing. Where would Jane Austen be without her plethora of double negatives, especially as used to show the nature of one of her characters: "She was not absolutely without inclination for the party" (Emma).

Sometime an infinitive just has to be split. Can you really imagine Captain Kirk saying, "To go boldly . . ."? And let's face it, sometimes prepositions just have to end a sentence. To argue otherwise, as Winston Churchill once said, "is the type of pedantry up with which I will not put."

Similarly, many writers have used patois or creole, phonetic writing or even fragmented language to remind us of the status and value of marginalized voices and people, or to remind us that the Queen's English was at times used to silence disempowered peoples by enforcing rules that the disenfranchised had no hope of knowing. Rules, it needs to be said, that were entirely arbitrary.

I think about this often when I read the Gospels, and when I watch the ultimate rule-breaker in action.

Could anyone have been more dismissive of rules for the sake of rules than Christ? Could anyone have introduced the disempowered more effectively into the central discourse than Jesus, who reminded us time and time again that everyone had the right to be heard?

In that context a split infinitive seems paltry stuff indeed. OMG.

(Dr. Gerry Turcotte is president, St. Mary's University in Calgary.)