Sunday, November 13, 2005



Christopher Morley, The Unforgivable Syntax, from Mince Pie (1919):
A certain young man never knew
Just when to say whom and when who;
  "The question of choosing,"
  He said, "is confusing;
I wonder if which wouldn't do?"

Nothing is so illegitimate
As a noun when his verbs do not fit him; it
  Makes him disturbed
  If not properly verbed--
If he asks for the plural, why git him it!

Lie and lay offer slips to the pen
That have bothered most excellent men:
  You can say that you lay
  In bed--yesterday;
If you do it to-day, you're a hen!

A person we met at a play
Was cruel to pronouns all day:
  She would frequently cry
  "Between you and I,
If only us girls had our way--!"
The title of Morley's poem is a pun on "the unforgivable sin" of Luke 12:10 (cf. Mark 3:29 and Matthew 12:31-32):
But unto him that blasphemeth against the Holy Ghost it shall not be forgiven.
The title of this blog post, Solecisms, means "grammatical errors" and has an interesting derivation. The Online Etymology Dictionary traces its history thus:
1577, from M.Fr. solécisme, from L. soloecismus "mistake in speaking or writing," from Gk. soloikismos "to speak (Greek) incorrectly," from soloikos "ungrammatical utterance," prop. "a speaking like the people of Soloi," from Soloi, Athenian colony in Cilicia, whose dialect the Athenians considered barbarous.
I once worked for a boss whose last name was Solley and whose writing was barely recognizable as English. I collected egregious examples from his emails and stored them in a file named Solleycisms.

The last stanza of Morley's poems makes me think that a good name for a band of grammatical nit-pickers would be the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Pronouns. In another one of his books, Plum Pudding, Morley talks about the Three Hours for Lunch Club. I'm not a clubbable man by nature, but I could see myself as a member of both the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Pronouns and the Three Hours for Lunch Club.

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