Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The Warfel Law of Divided Usage

Harry R. Warfel:

Several years ago I announced the Warfel Law of Divided Usage: “Whenever a variant is denounced as wrong by books or teachers, that ‘wrong’ usage will gain currency and will occur frequently in speech and writing.” The harping upon due to, different than, ain’t, and try and do has merely accelerated the adoption of these so-called errors by speakers and writers. . . . Emphasis creates a pattern that flashes automatically into the mind. For this reason wise teachers stress normative usages rather than “errors.”

Who Killed Grammar? (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1952).
See also David Lambuth’s Golden Book on Writing: “what the ’prentice writer needs to be told is what to do and not what not to do.”

But as one of Warfel’s examples suggests, emphasizing “normative usages” can itself lead to problems: She, he, and I (with I placed last), Warfel says, leads to Give some candy to he, she, and I. (And, I would add, to between he and I.) Misguided corrections also lead to problems: over many years of teaching, I often noticed students using in which where which alone was needed. (For instance: Hamlet’s soliloquy, in which shows us his difficulty in taking action.) I have long suspected that in which results from misguided teachers changing, say, the house I live in to the house in which I live. At some point, an in before which may become unfortunately automatic.

I hope some teacher somewhere finds the Warfel Law of Divided Usage useful in helping students to understand the sources of some of their writing problems.

A related post
Ending a sentence with it

[I noticed Why Grammar? mentioned in the first pages of Bryan Garner’s Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation (2016). Among Warfel’s books: Noah Webster: Schoolmaster to America (1936) and, as co-author, American College English: A Handbook of Usage and Composition (1949).]

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