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Speculating on the Grammar Futures Exchange

Ever since my first encounter with Chaucer in the eighth grade I've been thinking about the way the English language is changing. At what point, I wondered, will familiar texts like the Declaration of Independence, say, become as challenging to future generations as "Aprill, with his shoures soote" was to me? And why do those who don't understand the rules of grammar, alas, be the ones who get to change them?

There: With that "alas," I've tipped my hand as a prescriptivist, a believer in the "should" and "must" of language.

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Sometimes, though, I try to mellow out and be an objective observer. It's a strain. It's natural that language should change. Usages fall out of favor; new terms are coined to meet new needs. Let's imagine a Grammar Futures Exchange, in which shares in different words and usages are bought and sold on the basis of how useful they will be in the future.

Naked intransitives

Which sectors of the market is the smart money watching? This analyst is bullish on the "naked intransitive": the verb form that is now seen as complete in itself, without object or complement - earlier practice notwithstanding. Thus we have "to cave," instead of "to cave in," for example: "The kids wanted to go out for pizza, and even though I'd planned to cook dinner, I just caved."

Two examples have crossed my desk in the past weeks: a reference to places where people are "recreating" - beaches, malls, sporting events. And "Lately, some other stocks have been outperforming." Outperforming what?

Transposed gerunds

The astute investor on the Exchange should also have a position in transposed gerund phrases: "problem solving" instead of "solving problems," or "fundraising" instead of "raising funds." On a recent radio program about post-traumatic stress in the military, I heard a talking head say that for members of the mostly male armed forces, "help seeking" is hard. Note the word order - "help seeking," not "seeking help." A Google search of the two phrases suggests that the latter is vastly more common but that the former has a toehold in medicine and education. How long before "seeking help" begins to sound like Chaucer's "shoures soote"?

Morphed transitives

An official in Washington holding forth on education policy told National Public Radio the other day, "What's important is that young people graduate high school college-ready."

Well, if they want to graduate with honors, they'll want to consider "graduating from high school," I sniffed. Fellow editors concur: A Google News search brought up 539 instances of "graduate from high school," compared with 126 for "graduate high school."

In my father's day, the "graduation" controversy was whether it was still necessary to say "be graduated from high school." In this view, the school graduates students - transitive verb, with "students" as object. The contemporary "correct" usage has "graduate" as an intransitive verb, with "students" as the subject. If the Washington official's usage catches on, though, "graduate" will become a transitive again, but this time with "students" as the subject and "high school" as the object.

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My moralistic side is bothered by this; the detached observer notes which way the tide is running. If I thought there were money to be made on the Grammar Futures Exchange, I'd call my broker with "buy" orders for naked intransitives and transposed gerunds. I'd even - arrgghh! - go for a modest investment in morphed transitives.

This column appears with links at: weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy


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