Illogic (1). Today: Logic vs. Idiom. Anyone who would dare drag logic into a discussion on language must do so warily. For centuries, grammarians labored under the mistaken belief that grammar is nothing but applied logic and therefore tried to rid languages of everything illogical. But to paraphrase Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, the life of the language has not been logic: it has been experience. No serious student believes that grammatical distinctions necessarily reflect logical ones. Our language is full of idioms that defy logic, many of them literary or colloquial. We should not, for example, fret over the synonymy of “fat chance” and “slim chance,” or “miss” and “near miss.” We should instead smile at the playful genius of the language. Applying “linguistic logic” to established ways of saying things is a misconceived effort. We see this misconception today when armchair grammarians insist that “grammatical error” is an Irish bull; that “the reason why” is wrong (no more so, certainly, than “place where” or “time when”); or that “a number of people” must always take a singular verb. When logic is used for such purposes, it’s worse than idle: it’s harmful. That doesn’t mean that logic is irrelevant. For rhetorical purposes, it’s essential. Most readers will be distracted if they notice this type of problem. So strictly follow idiom and usage, but otherwise apply logic. The exercise tightens prose. Logic will help you avoid saying “I was literally scared to death,” because you’re still alive to report how scared you were. Likewise, logic helps you banish thoughtless words like “preplanned.” Next: Illogical Comparisons. For more information about the Language-Change Index click here. Quotation of the Day: “I once said that the three most important elements of fiction are plot, plot, and plot. The equivalent in nonfiction is: clarity, clarity, and clarity.” Ayn Rand, The Art of Nonfiction 2 (1969; Robert Mayhew ed., 2001).
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