The NY Times has an interesting article on the origins of the non-word “ghoti,” which some people says follows the rules of English spelling to produce what should be spoken as “fish.” They treat the non-word in much the way other experts in grammar do and trace its usage down through some fairly respectable sources. No too surprising, they find that the history of its usage is not so clear.
Its first use was apparently by a parent in 1855 who wrote the following in a letter: “My son William has hit upon a new method of spelling ‘Fish.’ ”
What strikes me about these discussions on the histories of words is that they focus on words, not phrases or clauses. They make points that are interesting to those who have too much training in language, but the offer little to nothing for people learning to write better.
The sentence from the letter, for example, uses the verbal phrase “hit upon” which is not all that common any longer. We might be able to trace its usage back a few centuries so some obscure source, but I think it would be more useful to know how verbs can be phrases and can include words such as “upon.” It would be interesting to know when these words we now recognize as prepositions started to be used as parts of verbs.
There is also the use of “My son William” to refer to someone who could be be called “my son” or “William” but is instead described with a phrase that leaves no doubt about not only who it is but also his relation to the speaker. I am wondering when this type of noun phrase became common since it is still used quite a bit and seems to be associated with claims that children are extensions of their parents.
When I read these word histories that are so common in discussions of English, I find them interesting but useless for my own writing or for teaching my students how to write. They are simply not concerned with the issue that take up so much space in such discussions and really should not be.
A more useful to discussing grammar would not be solely focused on the usages and histories of words, but would also discuss phrases and clauses.
When we produce ideas, we usually do so phrase by phrase and clause by clause, not word by word. The problem is that the histories of phrase and clause structures are not so easy to trace as histories of words. Words are also easy to search for in Google and other search engines.
That ease of researching the appearance and use of words should not turn nearly all discussions of grammar away from phrases and clauses. When I tell my own students that prepositional phrases act as either adjectives and adverbs or when they first see that a clause can be used as an object of a transitive verb, they wonder how something so obvious and so simple could have passed them by. The use of these structures are not unusual or novel in the way the history of “ghoti” might be but they are parts of how we think and how we need to write if we are to be effective communicators.
More frequent discussion of phrases and clauses would make grammatical discussions more useful to most people’s writing and reading because it deals with the units of human thought rather than the curiosities of a few specialists.