8 Nov 2007

No, your high school English teacher was not omniscient

Submitted by Karl Hagen
In high school my favorite English teacher was Mrs. Stephens. She was strict, demanded quality writing, and rarely gave A's. And I still remember many of the little usage rules that she insisted on. In my maturity, however, I realize that she taught us many arbitrary rules that have little foundation in reality. One was the positioning of however, which she told us must never be used at the beginning of a sentence in the sense of nevertheless. Today I know that this is just an old prejudice of Strunk's about a usage that was uncommon in literary English before the twentieth century, and that by the time I was in high school in the 80s, sentence-initial however was found frequently in carefully edited prose. Nonetheless, such is Mrs. Stephen's influence on me that I rarely can bring myself to start a sentence with however. Another bit of trivia I remember her telling us was the pronunciation of regimen, which she insisted was pronounced like regime. At the time, I didn't bother to look it up, but if I had, I would have found that she had confused one of the senses of regime, which can mean regimen, with a pronunciation fact about regimen. Although I don't pronounce regimen as regime any more, whenever I hear or say the word I think about Mrs. Stephens' comment. I bring this up because I am sick of arguments about English usage that amount to "that's what my English teacher said and she was a great teacher." So what. Mrs. Stephens was a great teacher, but she did tell us things that were wrong. It's not her fault. It's unreasonable to expect anyone to have a perfect command of all the minutiae of language. It is unreasonable, though, to make an argument from authority based on the say-so of your high school English teacher. If you feel compelled to replicate what you were taught, no matter how idiosyncratic, that's fine. It's your usage, after all. But please don't dictate these prejudices to others.