On Accident

  Jerome Shea       January 12, 2008      Weekend Wonk

So the fruit of my loins protests that he broke the goldfish bowl “ON accident,” and I blanch, or pretend to. Does Dan’s new wording mean that something is going somewhere in a hand basket? I don’t think so, and that exposes our assumption that language change is always for the worse. Why is this so?

Perhaps it’s part of the larger “good old days” phenomenon. People are naturally nostalgic. Everything was better “back in the day.” “They don’t make ‘em like they used to,” we moan about our automobiles, when the only proper rejoinder is “Thank goodness!” We are very conservative about our language, and even more so as we grow older. But slowly I am getting a grip on “on accident.” I will never use it, and it will always sound funny to me, but in some ways it is an improvement. After all, now at least it lines up with “on purpose.” (No, I’m not ready for “by accident” and “BY purpose”; one change at a time, please.) Stock phrases are good laboratories for this. I am not partial to “tow the line,” because that doesn’t reflect the original image that was meant in “toe the line.” But it is possible to “tow the line” if you are playing tug-of-war, I suppose, so I might make a kind of queasy peace with it. The other day I caught a writer whom I greatly admire writing “STEP foot.” In my day, you “SET foot” (or not) in a place.* But “step foot” changes the image not at all, and for Shea to give Richard Russo permission to write what he writes would be a new high in fatuity. I have also run across both “to the manor born” and “to the manner born,” so often that I could not tell you for certain which is “correct,” though I favor the former.

Speaking of fatuity, some battles are already lost. You will occasionally hear someone protest that the correct pronunciation is not “haRASS” but “HArass.” Sorry. No. It used to be, but 99% of speakers, at least in this country, now pronounce it “haRASS,” so “haRASS” it is. You can pronounce it “HArass” if you like, perhaps to show us peasants that you are landed gentry. More likely you will just come off as pompous.

I always used to introduce my grammar course with the same discussion trotted out in this wonk and the previous one (“Whose Language Is It, Anyway?”), and I would usually champion the descriptivist side to show that I was no mossback, that I was on the linguistic cutting edge. It was fun to ridicule those who insisted on “HArass” or got the vapors when one ended a sentence with a preposition.** But I was also being a fraud. There is a mossback side of me. Call it the Freshman English side. If one of my students writes “THERE making a mockery of the argument,” you can bet she will hear from me in no uncertain terms. The same goes for “its/it’s,” “your/you’re,” and other homophonic pitfalls. And you can “REIGN in your enthusiasm” over my dead body! While we are at it, what in h-e-double-hockey-sticks happened to “drawback”? Now we read—trust me: been there, read that—“One DOWNFALL of the new Escalade is that a stick shift isn’t offered.” “No,” I mutter through clenched teeth, “that’s a ‘drawback,’ not a ‘downfall,’ you cretin!”

Sorry. Got a little carried away there. I do sometimes. Language may belong to all of us, but I get a tad proprietary when people start vandalizing something so close to my heart.

There are, in fact, several very good arguments on the prescriptivist side. The writing teacher, for one thing, is trying to keep her students from sounding like doofuses. It is often uphill work, but the hope is to clear up the “it’s/its” confusion before it shows up glaringly on a resume. Bad usage can indeed hurt your chances in the real world. If this guy doesn’t know the simple difference between its and it’s, runs the argument, what else might he not know?

That’s if the guy in human resources knows the difference himself.

Let me leave you with that dismal thought till next week. One more wonk on this language stuff, ok? Just one more. I promise.

*Russo is only seven years my junior, so I wonder where he picked up the new variant. Or has “step foot” been around as long as “set foot,” and am I woefully provincial? Oh, dear.

**The sentences usually arraigned under that old bugaboo do not end in prepositions, anyway, but in “particles” attached to “phrasal verbs.” There is nothing grammatically wrong with writing “This is something I won’t put up with,” though for stylistic reasons one might prefer “This is something I won’t tolerate.” And you won’t be reviled by the neighborhood schoolmarm.

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