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Just as I was about to start writing this diatribe, my friend Gary Houston linked me to an article celebrating the generosity and ingenuity of our language. The timing couldn't have been more inconvenient.
Even back in the 1700s, "Americans had a reputation for using English more flexibly than British people," writes Sarah Laskow on the website atlasobscura.com. The name of her article is "How Do You Speak American? Mostly, Just Make Up Words."
We hung on to words the English discarded, says Laskow. We lifted words like canoe and maize that were here before us. "But, mostly," she says, "Americans would just make words up. Thomas Jefferson, who described himself as 'a friend to neology,' created the word 'belittle.' British writers despaired over it; he simply made up more."
But American English wasn't different only because of what H.L. Mencken would call its "large capacity for taking in new words and phrases." Laskow tells us Mencken put his finger on something else just as important about our language: "its impatient disregard for grammatical, syntactical and phonological rule and precedent."
So two cheers for that.
And now on to the matter at hand.
Tuesday night I went to see the new Steppenwolf production, Grand Concourse, and then I reread the reviews in the daily papers. The reviewers agreed. Without realizing it, Chris Jones—who is actually a Brit!—agreed with Hedy Weis (of New York) that grammatical logic was not their concern.
Jones wrote in the Tribune:
[Brittany] Uomoleale, a New Yorker making her Steppenwolf debut, was not yet probing deeply enough into this character at the Saturday night performance I saw, although Emma is underexplained in the script. Uomoleale has the start of something going, but not yet the requisite layers of one of those needy collegiate urbanities who hangs around soup kitchens—maybe as parasites of privilege or maybe as forces for great good. This is a character that needs to be both sweet butter and the knife that cuts it up into little pieces, and she requires a much sharper blade.
And Weiss wrote in the Sun-Times:
And so it is in "Grand Concourse," Heidi Schreck’s beautiful tragicomedy of life, love, faith, mercy, work, aspiration, failure, truth, lies, rebirth and that whole crazy stew we refer to as "humanity." Yet one thing is for certain: It is not an overstatement to say that this play—now receiving its Chicago premiere, with four terrific actors thriving under the flawless, fast-paced direction of Yasen Peyankov—is one of those Steppenwolf Theatre productions that reminds you of why you go to the theater in the first place.
These passages commit the same sin, and I'd like to think you'll spot it as quickly as I did. But Sarah Laskow just made me realize you probably won't, and when I point it out you'll snicker and say it's my problem. So all I want to say is that it isn't my problem because I could care less, and I'm tired of pointing it out for your sake. (As I did here and here, not to mention here.)
Jefferson, the famed neologisticizer, would have been with me on this one.