Pseudomistakes

by F.

I hate grammatical niceties and pseudo-rules about when to use this versus that word, largely because quite often they are just made-up by some fool. Someone thinks that, say, a contract must use shall instead of will in order to convey obligation rather than simple futurity.

No. Normal speakers of American English don’t make this distinction, and if the audience for the text doesn’t care, I don’t care, generally. Also, linguistic competence operates unconsciously: you don’t think, consciously, effortfully, about how to express what you want. You just do. So another pernicious by-product of having a grammar cop voicing admonitions in your ear is that it destroys your competence.

For instance, take versus bring. Is there a rule? Is there a common solecism with these two words that we must guard against, coming out of autopilot mode and into manual mode when speaking or writing? It better be pretty important to turn off autopilot, because using manual mode is costly in terms of effort, time and likelihood of ever more mistakes. (“Should I say whom there? Or is that word in a separate clause that is the actual object of the proposition such that the pronoun is still in the nominative case?”)

Yes, there is a rule. But I doubt most people would make the “mistake” in the first place, so there is probably no reason to think about it consciously. What is the rule? Just think of these two, entirely natural phrases:

  1. “bring it here”
  2. “take it there”

Now, in (1), where is the speaker? Here, wherever that is. In (2) where is the speaker? Who knows. But he is talking about “there.” In other words (in this case, the words of Words@Random):

the word bring is used for movement towards a speaker or a speaker’s point of reference;

take is used for movement away from a speaker or a speaker’s point of reference.

However, context often makes it irrelevant which word is used, and there is nothing wrong with using “bring” in ambiguous cases, as ample evidence from literature demonstrates.

There is more here, though it’s technical (in the sense of Linguistics, the science, rather than Prescriptive Grammar, the religion):

With this kind of fluidity (and it’s by no means all — see Fillmore for a surfeit of surprises), there are lots of choices available for bring and take.

If you are speaking to someone outside your office community, who will not be accompanying you tomorrow, you would be more likely to say I’ll take the sausage to work tomorrow; but you could still say I’ll bring it to work, because, after all, you’ll be there, and it’ll count as moving towards you, the speaker.

Contrariwise, if you are speaking, while you are at work today, to someone at work who will be present when you arrive tomorrow, you would be more likely to say I’ll bring the sausage to the office tomorrow.

Officially Correct English, like the Tooth Fairy and Civic Virtue, is a product of grade school mythology and rarely leads to satisfying answers or useful decisions. The truth about language is always far more interesting — and far more complex — than what Miss Fidditch told you.

And now I’ll shut up.

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