However, I should have delivered a real speech

Tuesday, 22 February 2005 — 11:51am | Debate, Literature

On the subject of a rather unimpressive 3-2 finish at UBC’s Pacific Cup by Nick Fowler and myself, I will say little. On the subject of the associated public speaking competition, I said little and will say more now.

I earned my way to my first public speech final by way of such pseudo-quotable platitudes as “People don’t kill people; Dan Brown novels kill people” and a mini-thesis on why grammar is the new exorcism. In the latter, I spoke of false prophets and the erroneous prescriptions on the part of Strunk and White in The Elements of Style, particularly the prohibition on using “however” at the beginning of a sentence. Immediately after the speech, Lindsay Eberhardt from Alaska gave me a look of utter shock as if I’d just pronounced something totally wacko, like “There’s no such thing as Silicon Heaven” or “Mustafa Hirji is running for Students’ Union President.” “You can use however at the beginning of a sentence?” she exclaimed. “My grade school teacher would kill me!”

Immediately after the tournament, Language Log came to the rescue. Timely of them, really. The criticism of the fallacy of the “however” prejudice should be nothing new to people who are already well informed about how syntax actually works, but here’s an eye-opener from the second post cited above:

But what I am suggesting is that if you look at works published around the time of White’s birth and in the early years of his lifetime, works published when Strunk was in college and early in his teaching career, you find good statistical evidence that literary English really did favor however in second position but not first position in sentences.

Strunk, then, was simply insisting that the use of English by others ought to conform to the statistical patterns prevalent in the literature he knew. And fifty years later White was sticking to the same dogma. The grammar of however is not so simple, though: the word did sometimes occur sentence-initially in the 19th and early 20th century, as Mark’s investigations showed; it just wasn’t so frequent, and Strunk and White missed the subtlety of a word with two competing positional tendencies showing different frequencies.

With that said, to those of you who were present at the speech final, do excuse me for the three minutes of verbal haemorrhaging. To those of you who were absent: you don’t want to know.


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