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3 Comments

  • It’s not just errors, either. The same type of problem can exist when people choose examples to show to “prove” that something is acceptable, too. I’m always skeptical when someone cites a poet’s work as a usage example. In poetry, grammar and usage can be trumped by any number of things — rhythm, meter, rhyme, sound. So sometimes we see arguments like “Shakespeare did X, so X must be good usage.”

    A (very) little research can then reveal, “Shakespeare did X because he needed an extra un-emphasized syllable to complete the iambic pentameter.”

    The moral of the story: Whether you’re trying to prove something right or point out errors, avoid citing poetry, where grammar sits second fiddle to art.

  • That’s a good point, Andy. It’s a form of false equivalence to use poetry to back up grammatical claims. Citing Shakespeare can also mislead simply because grammatical and other linguistic norms change, and what was appropriate centuries ago isn’t necessarily so today. In arguing about the legitimacy of a usage in modern English, there’s nothing wrong with referring to Shakespeare alongside other works from difference contexts and times, but the argument oughtn’t to be based on his usage.