Dead Man Talking.

By Jeffrey Barg
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Nov. 26, 2008

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Hoo boy, a lot of you got pissed off last week.

The Angry Grammarian inbox was bursting with scores of people apparently outraged that "a historic" could be preferable to "an historic." But of all the hysterical letters, most confounding was this one:

"Samuel Johnson would be so proud of you. Like him you cling to the past, desperately trying to force an ever-changing beautiful language into the stultifying rules of an already dead one, codifying, limiting with endless, meaningless boundaries, imposing structure where none was necessary for centuries before."

Really? I've never met the man, but Samuel Johnson didn't even include the word "historic" in his dictionary. So I don't know if he even had an opinion on the matter.

But as for those already dead languages, I've gone on record as being firmly against pointless rules like "don't split infinitives," which comes from the fact that Latin infinitives are single words, and therefore unsplittable. Samuel Johnson might say you shouldn't do anything in English that you can't do in Latin, but he's dead. And zombies are notoriously bad about enforcing grammar rules.

So Latin's out. Other dead languages, though? Enforcement is now on. If you couldn't do it in Cuneiform, best not try it in English. Break out your Gilgamesh, y'all; all your letters from here on out better be wedge-shaped!

You quote an AP announcement as follows: "The Associated Press is adopting a universal style for referring to all heads of state, including the United States." It seems to me that the sentence is equating "head of state" (a person) with "the United States" (a country), and that seems wrong to me.

They got it right, but it's shifty. "Including the United States" is all referring to the lonely word "state," the object of the preposition. The United States is a state.

But throwing an apostrophe after "States" would be just as correct, and a hell of lot cleaner. While the AP is technically correct, you'd think that in a bulletin about style, they'd be a little more stylish about it.

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