Sunday, October 12, 2008

Latin in English

A number of expressions and grammatical rules from Latin have made their way into common use among English speakers. As there are few Latin scholars among us, the rules for correct use are sometimes misunderstood -- which is not surprising, given that sometimes even the scholars have gotten it wrong.

Here's a stab at offering clarification to borrowed terms and making corrections to popular misconceptions.

i.e., e.g., via, etc., viz.* i.e. = id est in Latin; means that is or in other words (often confused with e.g.)
* e.g. = exempli gratia in Latin; means for example (often confused with i.e.)
* via = means by way of or by means of (old-fashioned)
* etc. = et cetera in Latin; means and the rest or and so forth
viz. = videlicet in Latin; means namely or to wit

Ending sentences with prepositions everywhereThis is a no-no in Latin; it's perfectly fine in English, however. So why did generations of English teachers tell us not to do this? Because they were all taught the wrong thing too. A few centuries back a group of literary Englishmen (I've seen Dryden's name included in that mix) attempted to ennoble the mundane English language; one standard they applied was make it resemble the noble Latin tongue of the Romans. And so these gents set about applying rules of Latin grammar to English. The application was foreign and arbitrary, but it has stayed with us to this day.

To boldly split infinitivesIn Latin, you can't split an infinitive with an ax; not so in English. Thus, Captain Kirk was perfectly within his rights in describing his ship's five-year mission "To boldly go where no man has gone before." It was another Latin norm arbitrarily applied to English.

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