“It was close. So close I could smell it, even through the stink of fear-sweat and the rough tang of the city streets. Gerund. Once you get that scent… once you’ve smelled it, that cloying mix of blood and carrion and jasmine and chocolate, you’ll never forget it. You’ll never mistake it. You’ll never be the same.
I leaned back around the corner and flashed a fist at the others. They stopped instantly, then spread out into a little skirmish line. Five of us altogether, armed with military-grade assault weapons and kitted out with body armour that was supposed to handle even teflon-coated bullets… but what did armour-makers know about the claws of the Gerund?”
English is a weird language. And why not? It got kickstarted when the Romans dragged Latin into what would become the British Isles. Scots and Irish Gaelic leaked into it. The Saxons invaded with a degree of success more or less accompanied by Jutes and Angles (who?), and then later the Vikings rolled up. Oh, and then much of what we think of England was part of a gigantic Danish kingdom under Cnut* (or Canute, as we call him when we talk about some silly bastard trying to hold back the tide.) Not too much thereafter, the Normans invaded and added their irritating touch to the whole mixture, so all up, English is probably the most bastardised language in existence today.
And I love it for that. So many different words! So many ways to say things! Unfortunately, it also means that English is hideously inconsistent with regard to little things like spelling, grammar, and pronunciation. It’s also so very complicated that even people who work with it on a professional level can find themselves surprised. (Me included. That article that did the rounds a while back, on the order of adjectives in English — I’d never even thought about that, though like everyone else I knew the rules intuitively. Weird.
When it comes to writing fiction, things can get contentious. I mean, since the advent of a certain celebrated television show, most of us are happy to boldly split an infinitive or two when it suits us. But there are editors to consider, and some of them are tricky beasts.
Me? Well — my high school English teacher gave me what I consider to be the best advice I’ve ever had on the topic. “Good English is appropriate to the situation,” he used to say, often just before splitting a particularly nasty infinitive over the head of a truant student. And he’s right. English is about communication. That’s what it’s for. Thus, English in fiction is about reaching your chosen audience.
That’s actually a lot trickier than you might think. For example, in the wake of 9/11 and the rise of security theatre worldwide, Richard Flanagan wrote a book called The Unknown Terrorist. Marketed — and evidently intended — as a thriller of sorts, it fails spectacularly because Flanagan is far more interested in delivering political ideas than he is in hitting the beats that the thriller-reading audience expects. And that’s a huge problem, because people who read thrillers do so because they enjoy thrillers, and that’s what they want when they pick up a book sold as a thriller.
Flanagan could have written a political essay to lay out his ideas. That would have worked, but it wouldn’t have reached the audience he was hoping to reach. He wanted to insert his ideas into a more populist section of the debate, so he chose to produce what he believed was a thriller in order to reach that audience. Unfortunately, he either didn’t take the time to read enough thrillers beforehand, or he didn’t take on board the essential genre elements of thrillerdom sufficiently to create a novel which successfully enacted those elements. (I must write a post on the book some time. It’s a great way to learn why genre is important.)
That, of course, is a complex kind of example. But you can see the principle in action every day if you consider the difference in your own speaking vocabulary when, say, you’re at a footy match versus, say, when you’re discussing art cinema with a critical audience. It’s not just the words: it’s the way they’re used, the emphasis, sometimes even the accent and pronunciation.
All of this is to say: there’s no good to be had in getting too hung up about fine rules of grammar, or the changing meaning of words. I mean — I’m as cranky as anybody about some. (You idiots who say ‘honing in’ when you clearly mean ‘homing in’ — yeah, I’m talking to you, dingbats. Get a dictionary. Use it. Then stick it between your teeth whenever you have the urge to speak.) But in the long run, it doesn’t make any difference. The language is what it is now — and not what it was in Master Shaxpur’s time. Aye, and when the melodious Bard, unhindered by the tyrant claws of Samuel Johnson’s most favoured yet most ill-starred creation, brought forth his works of immortal fame — why, did he not with contumely unbounded disdain the tongue of even such a one as Chaucer?
(The answer to that last is: yes. He did.)
Language changes. Learn to live with it.
By the way: a gerund, in English, derives from the Latin origins of the language, and refers to verbs of the -ing form which become nouns when used in that manner. As in “Stop that whining, because it won’t make any difference in the long run you pusillanimous pedant!”
I’m pretty sure they don’t have claws…
*NOT a misspelling, thank you Word Processor Who Shall Not Be Named…