I was born in Scotland and received my grammar and composition grounding in primary school (grades 1-7) in the 1950s. We were grilled and drilled in the way our language went together and were taught “right and wrong” ways of expressing ourselves. Later, I moved to Canada, where I completed high school and discovered that the language skills I’d been taught in Scotland were rich and deep, and that I was blessed to understand English in a way my fellow high school students and subsequent university classmates didn’t fully understand. Even later, after I moved to the U.S., I discovered my language skills were even further ahead of most of my fellow university students. I’ve also been blessed with six years of Latin training, one of the best ways to understand our complex English tongue.
Throughout that time, I continued to think of language as having rights and wrongs. While this attitude and approach still has merit, I am also aware of subtle differences among the three countries where I’ve lived for extensive numbers of years and that what constitutes right and wrong reveals some slippery slopes. For example, in the U.K., I was taught “different from.” A is different from B. That’s right; every other construction is wrong. In Canada, I heard “different from” and “different than,” and no teacher bothered to correct it. In the U.S., I discovered that the common expression is “different than.” So, not an error necessarily. A is different than B.
Recently, I conversed with an Australian teacher who used “different to.” A is different to B. This sounded strange to me, but I’ve grown schizophrenic enough about language to realize that this is a simply a slightly different evolution of the English language as it wended its way across the Pacific.
While there are still many “errors” in grammar I see in student papers (subject-verb agreement, anyone), I’ve grown more tolerant of slight variations (Oxford comma, yes or no?). I have also learned that language evolves (e.g., whom having been discarded by the Oxford dictionary as now obsolete or, at least, on its way out, not to mention the last vestiges of the subjunctive). I won’t even start on “lay” and “lie,” which are still very clearly different verbs. Such changes may sound strange and “wrong” to my ears, but the next generation will think them just fine and, in the end, it will be up to me to adjust.
Grammar, etymology, punctuation, usage—all fascinate me and I deeply enjoy pursuing my native language in all its nuances, which I consider important. I hope you do, too. As a parting shot for this blog post, in case you think I’m splitting hairs, I refer you to a newspaper article from March 16 of this year.