Yesterday was National Grammar Day (in the US, at least), which has given rise to a mountain of competitions, activities, blogs, cartoons, tweets and other miscellaneous celebrations of the invisible web that holds language together. I blogged last week about the haiku competition; the winner was Larry Kunz, with this dangling modifier entry:
Being a dangler,
Jane knew it would have to come
out of the sentence
There were some gorgeous entries:
Send not to ask for
whom the bell tolls. It tolls for
who still uses whom.
Pedants must be told
What they can go and stick their
First person: I love
Second person: You love me
Third person: Uh, oh.
and this one:
beware! so many
irregular verbs have crope
into the English language
This last one, with its belly-to-the-floor ‘crope’, reminded me of something else I saw this week: how the phrase ‘just deserts’ is spelt with one s in ‘deserts’, although it is pronounced as we usually pronounce the version with two s’s – ‘desserts’. I knew that the phrase means ‘to get what you deserve’, but I had always thought it was about ‘desserts’; as a child I must have stored this expression and the expression ‘you can’t have your cake and eat it too’ into the area of my brain reserved for ‘idioms about food’, subsection ‘punitive’. It made perfect sense to me that they belonged together, and that control over a person’s access to sugar was control indeed.
It turns out that ‘just deserts’ is from the French ‘deserver’ and is therefore related to what we deserve. But because we don’t use that form of deserve anymore, the misspelling ‘just desserts’ is very common; a quick search reveals about 5.5 million hits for ‘just desserts’ and only 618,000 for the correct spelling of ‘just deserts’.
Crosswords, like idioms, can be another avenue of preserving words that would otherwise have long fallen into disuse. Examples I’m familiar with include ‘alarum’ as the solution to ‘alarm (arch.)’ (that clue does seem as if the compiler had to scurry off to submit the crossword to the paper’s editor by the evening post, so old-fashioned and stop-gappish is it); ‘ogee’ as the solution to ‘an s-shaped moulding’ and ‘sere’ as the solution to ‘bone dry’.
All this shows is that language is infinitely changing, which is one of the great celebrations of National Grammar Day. Contrary to the view that the day would cause a great smirk of self-satisfaction on the smug mugs of pedants everywhere, it brings out people who can explain why ‘however’ can be used at the beginning of a sentence and why prepositions can be used at the end of a sentence. It attracts people whose interest is language: how it is used as much as how it should be used, and how to improve communication between people so as to avoid this.