Dear Mrs. Shakespeare

Dear Mrs. Shakespeare,

Your son William is a bright boy and shows potential, especially in his writing assignments. We are even thinking of asking him to work on the school play.

Some of his compositions do tend to be somewhat violent. However, I am confident this is a phase he will grow out of in time.

The main reason for my writing to you today is to request that you meet with me to discuss William’s English. He sometimes seems to show an utter disregard for the rules of grammar. I have tried to impress upon him that — however clever his ideas — unless he disciplines himself and uses proper grammar, no one will want to read what he writes.

Sincerely yours,

I. Polonius

Headmaster, King Edward IV Grammar School

Stratford-Upon-Avon

In a recent column, I quoted a line from Shakespeare. Then I added a note to proofreaders:

“Please do NOT correct this sentence:

‘This was the most unkindest cut of all.’

That’s William Shakespeare, not Mordechai Schiller.”

As Phrase Finder comments: “English teachers would probably put a red line through any schoolchild’s text that included the ‘most unkindest.’ That … phrase would be corrected to ‘most unkind’ or just ‘unkindest.’ Shakespeare rose far above the concerns of spelling and grammar. …”

Pablo Picasso said “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”

My brother Harav Nota Schiller — Rosh Yeshivah of Ohr Somayach, Yerushalayim, said, “It’s the migu principle.”

Migu is the Talmudic mechanism by which — without other evidence — you believe a litigant’s claim if he establishes credibility by maintaining that, had he wanted to lie, he could have come up with a better lie. By extension, an artist’s credibility is based on proven competence. Thus, Picasso’s “artist” has a migu that — being a pro who knows the rules — he can break them if he needs to.

Rudolf Flesch devoted a chapter of The Art of Readable Writing, to the question: “Did Shakespeare Make Mistakes in English?” He lists such flagrant violations as splitting infinitives:

“My learned lord, we pray you to proceed

And justly and religiously unfold. …”

On the battle of who vs. whom, Shakespeare nominates the nominative:

Who join’st thou with, but with a lordly nation,

That will not trust thee, but for profit’s sake?”

And if you are pluralistic about plurals, you’re in good company:

Thersites’ body is as good as Ajax’,

When neither are alive.

Flesch, co-creator of the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Test, championed clarity over correctness. And he made the case that what is “correct” changes with use.

“The … rules of English usage are not immutable natural laws, but simply conventions among educated English-speaking people. If enough educated people insist on making a ‘mistake,’ then it isn’t a mistake anymore and the teachers might as well stop wasting their time correcting it.”

Flesch went so far as to say these “so-called mistakes are good English” and “sometimes actually preferable.” But he qualifies his seemingly “descriptivist” position (i.e., describing how a language is used, rather than prescribing how to use it correctly): “I said sometimes preferable. That’s what makes this whole business so difficult. … So don’t take [it] as a blanket endorsement of every so-called mistake … I simply want to tell you a little about the facts of language.”

As for Shakespeare’s “the most unkindest cut,” Bryan Garner (Garner’s Modern American Usage) says:

Hypallage, known also as the transferred epithet, is a figure of speech in which the proper subject is displaced by what would logically be the object (if it were named directly). Usually hypallage is a mere idiomatic curiosity. It has a distinguished lineage — a famous example being Shakespeare’s line from Julius Caesar: “This was the most unkindest cut of all” (3.2.183). It was not the cut that was unkind, but rather the cutter. Hence the object has become the subject.”

So “most unkindest” is not only acceptable, but “distinguished.” Of course, Elizabethan English was a language in a state of flux. Then again, so is modern English. Or maybe it’s more in a state of flush.

Lest I be accused of Bardolatry (worship of the ‘Bard of Avon’, i.e. Shakespeare — Oxford English Dictionary), let me say, I come to query Shakespeare, not to praise him.

Much of what we now know of as English was created or influenced by Shakespeare. “William Shakespeare has had a huge influence on the English language, coining hundreds of new words and phrases in his poems and plays, many of which are still used today. … Shakespeare is the second-most quoted source in the Oxford English Dictionary, with over 30,000 quotations” (OxfordWords blog).

Thus, in recognition of Shakespeare’s contribution, I hereby launch the “Barred from Avon” campaign: I call upon all educators, editors and publishers to require background checks before issuing poetic licenses.


 

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