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ED UCATI O N: How Educated People Speak

4 minute read
TIME

EDUCATION

Scholar Bergen Evans believes firmly in a relative grammar. “No one can say how a word ought to be used.” he insists. “The best anyone can do is say how it is being used.”

Such frank statements, denying any final, unchanging standard of English grammar, horrify many men of letters who maintain that Evans’ opinions lead straight to linguistic chaos. Last week Evans’ baiters and backers were thumbing through a new, 576-page defense of his pragmatic approach to grammar, called

A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage (Random House; $3.95). Evans, 52, a professor of English at Northwestern University, wrote the book with his like-minded sister, Cornelia Evans, 56, a writing consultant to the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare. Their book has the same zestful flair that turned Bergen Evans into a national TV personality as the earnest, rapid-talking moderator of CBS’s The Last Word (TIME, Aug. 5).

Who Says So? Although both brother and sister declare that no one use of language is “correct,” their book is built around what they call “respectable English,” that is, “English used by educated people when they are speaking in public or writing to strangers.” The Evanses hastily point out that this “respectable” English has no more inherent merit than any other, and that it is constantly changing. But they still use the concept as a standard. Much of the debate about the Evanses’ book will swirl around the two obvious questions raised by their definition of respectable English: Who are the educated people, and what precisely do they say and write when they are minding their Ps and Qs?

The Evanses are sure they know both answers. An educated man would not hesitate, for example, to use the disputed term “quite unique,” because it is “used freely by outstanding writers and educators today.” They approve of the “because” in “the reason why he failed was because …” And they sanction the redundant “consensus of opinion” on the ground that “it is used so often.” On the other hand, they rigorously rule out scores of cliches on the ground of overuse. Example: “Know enough to come in out of the rain.”

The Evanses also suggest lightly that the purity once associated with a “Boston accent” might be traced to the assumption “that the Cabots, in speaking to God, would naturally employ an impeccable diction.” They point out that the situation described by the hackneyed “eternal triangle” is “scarcely more unendurable than the phrase,” and take special pains to blister John Foster Dulles for his “journalese”: “It was not some petty, pretentious scribbler who invented ‘massive retaliation’ and ‘agonizing reappraisal’ or spoke of ‘unleashing’ Chiang Kai-shek.”

Talking Through His Hat. Ohio-born Cornelia and Bergen Evans first developed an ear for the nuances of the English language in 1908, when their family moved to Sheffield, England and took a house near the Yorkshire moors. There they picked up a broad North Country dialect that stirred loud hoots of delight among their friends when they returned to Ohio in 1915. Recalls Cornelia: “We really spoke three languages: Middlewestern American, Yorkshire and the King’s English.”

The Evanses took seven years to write their dictionary, studied word by word such classics as H. W. Fowler’s A Dictionary of Modern English Usage and A Dictionary of American English, edited by Sir William Craigie (see MILESTONES) and James Hulbert. In all, Bergen piled up 108 looseleaf notebooks in his children’s playroom. As the project grew, he began to have nightmares about a fire destroying his files. “If the house caught fire while I was out,” he chuckles, “my wife was instructed to forget the kids and start throwing the books out the window.” Despite all his research, Evans willingly admits that the final defense of his pragmatic approach to problems raised by the English language is his own judgment. Says he: “I have a pretty strong ear and I have confidence in it. During the writing of the book, I kept three hats handy. When I was in doubt, I clapped one or the other on my head and issued an opinion ex cathedra.”

Pleased with the critics’ favorable consensus of opinion on his book, Evans this week is going to Europe with his wife for a short vacation. “I don’t like vacations.” he confesses. “They bore me.” The quite unique reason why he is bored by vacations: “They cost a hell of a lot of money, when you could be more comfortable at home and accomplish something. I’m past the age when I can enjoy looking at ruins.” But Grammarian Evans will have one consolation on his trip. Says he: “I’m going to take along a pile of books.”

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