As fall grows steadily closer, my thoughts turn more and more to two things. One is the many new ideas I’m having for my fall composition classes—as well as the general excitement that starting a new quarter always brings. The other is new additions to my fall wardrobe, my favorite of which—so far—is this velvet tiger-print coat. Also, I’m not much of a fan of warm weather, so even though there is much about summer to enjoy, I’m looking forward to cooler days (and more opportunities to wear coats and capes and wraps).
And since fall is creeping closer day by day, I’m starting to see some hints of fall fashions on the magazine racks when I’m shopping. This makes me think about my own relationship with changing trends and with, as well, the much more slowly changing trends in the world of grammar and usage.
About twenty-five or so years ago, one of my friends gave me A Dictionary of Modern English Usage by H.W. Fowler (revised and edited by Sir Ernest Gowers) for a present (thank you, Melissa!). I still have it, and in fact, I spent a little time with it prior to writing this. I’ve realized that I invest so much time thinking about what my opinions about grammar and usage currently are that I had to pause to remember what they used to be. I remember beginning to read Fowler’s dictionary when I first received it, trying to commit to memory how words were “supposed” to be used.
Looking at the “A” section now, I see that I would have read when to use “a” and “an” with and without the silent “h” (this is a British English usage guide—Fowler and his brother published The King’s English in 1906). I would have read about the archaic past tense verb form of “abide,” “abode.” And knowing younger me, I would probably have tested myself to see what I remembered.
I’m not saying anything against usage guides, of course, and Fowler’s is actually a dictionary about usage. I think that reference works of all sorts are fascinating, particularly in how they provide us with a specific moment in time, and I have a long history of attempting to read such tomes cover to cover. When I came back to school to finish my degree in 2008, I bought the most current MLA handbook and started reading it from the beginning.
What I am saying is the more you know, the more you’re able to look objectively at what a usage guide is telling you, keeping when it was written in mind. One of the most memorable exercises in a graduate class that I took involved usage guides. At the start of the class, the professor brought in an enormous box full of books, usage guides going back several decades. He passed the books out and then gave us a “rule” to look up. One that I remember was split infinitives. After we had located the rule (or not, depending on the book), we recounted what we had found to the class. This was a pivotal moment for me in seeing how usage changes firsthand.
Let’s take a quick look at split infinitives. What are they and why would someone tell you not to do that? This Oxford Dictionaries entry provides all of the basic information. There is a clear definition that “split infinitives happen when you put an adverb between ‘to’ and a verb” and some commentary on differences of opinion as well: “[s]ome people believe that split infinitives are grammatically incorrect…But there’s no real justification for their objection, which is based on comparisons with the structure of Latin.”
Think about that most famous of split infinitives for a moment: Star Trek’s “to boldly go where no one has gone before.” I think that our lives would be the lesser without this iconic usage, and I can’t imagine it as “to go boldly.” I don’t see any grammatical reason not to split with impunity (or not, as you choose), and I very much argue in favor of splitting infinitives as stylistic choice. Which brings us back to fashion.
A quick online search for “what’s in for fall 2015” gave me a lot to look at. And since I was revisiting my earlier thoughts on grammar and usage, I’ve revisited my earlier thoughts on trends as well. In the past, I was seldom inclined to pay attention to trends simply because they were trends, and that hasn’t changed. However, I do find them a lot more fun to look at for reasons of wardrobe inspiration—as I mentioned above, the more you know, the more effective choices you can make!
In Elle’s fall trend guide, I see that there’s a “return to very feminine, sparkly jewelry…and the big earrings…were pretty much everywhere.” Well, that’s one point where I just naturally intersect with what’s trending (though that certainly isn’t always the case). And I do admit an interest in the furry shoes (!), though I personally disagree with the sentiment that “you only get one fur accent per look.” I’m mentally counting all of my faux fur pieces (see the bag from Damsel In This Dress Designs) and creating a future outfit—and that’s the awesome thing about style! It’s absolutely yours to do with what you will.
Which brings us back once more to usage guides and reference works: I’m every bit as interested in them as I ever was but less inclined to memorize and believe them to be the last word on a subject. Because while we’re still using the language, which we so very clearly are, it’s impossible to know what that last word will be.