"O! When Degree is Shak'd": Sixteenth-Century Anticipations of Some Modern Attitudes Toward Usage
JOSEPH M. WILLIAMS
Just as our forms of language have a history, so do our attitudes toward them. And just as understanding earlier forms helps us understand modern ones, so does understanding those earlier attitudes help us understand our own, including this immoderate but familiar sort of claim: "[Some people] are so uneducated, so deaf to what others are saying, so unable to learn the obvious that they are bound to be a major source of verbal pollution, linguistic corruption, cultural erosion" ( Simon, 1980:31).
The transgression? between you and I, "an unsurpassable [his emphasis] grossness," a usage that he believed was new and should be stopped before it "multipl[ies] and proliferate[s] until all is error and confusion. . . . It will lead us to every kind of deleterious misunderstanding" ( Simon, 1980:21). Had Mr. Simon known more about the history of English usage, he would have known that I in a conjunctive phrase after a preposition was common in polite eighteenth-century conversation, and probably well before ( Campbell, 1767:67). Regardless of how we judge its acceptability today, if between you and I has been in widespread use for 250 years, without corrupting our understanding, we can scarcely argue that it threatens the integrity of English tomorrow.
In fact, a question more interesting than merely what we should count as good usage is why minor deviations from it inspire such immoderate passion. What is it about small points of grammar that excite otherwise reasonable people toward visions of linguistic corruption and social decay? Are such attitudes