On What’s Right

I think it’s time for someone to speak out in favor of the right wing.  I’m talking about true conservatism.  I’m talking about grammar.

My mother used to have fits when one of her sons said, “I’m done,” meaning that he’d finished eating.

“You sound as if you have no breeding,” she’d say.  ‘I’m done’ means you’ve been left in the oven long enough to be well cooked.  What you mean to say is, ‘I’m finished.’ ”

This is false conservatism.  Mom believed it simply because it was what her mother had taught her.  (In fact, she boasted that she believed everything her mother had taught her.)  I say, that’s blind faith in the old way, just because it’s the old way.

True conservatism, I say, is more principled.  And that’s why “I’m finished” is no more correct than “I’m done.” 

“I’m finished’ is what Al Capone said when Eliot Ness hauled him off to the federal pen.  It’s what Wile E. Coyote thought every time he was outwitted by the Road Runner. The correctness of the idea doesn’t depend on the main verb – “to do” being essentially equivalent to “to finish” – the difference depends on the choice between the two auxiliary verbs, ‘have’ versus ‘am.’  Specifically, the first is active, the second passive. 

There’s reason behind such principle.  If you “have done” your work, you “have finished” it.  (Active. You’re talking about what you have done to the work.)

Whereas, if the work “is” done, then it “is” finished.  (Passive. You’re talking about what has happened to the work.)

I told Mom a thousand times that the correct way to disavow the intention of further eating is to say “I have finished” or “I have done.”  It got me nowhere. It wasn’t what her mother had taught her.

I also pointed out to Mom that language changes over time.  (If it didn’t, we’d still be speaking Anglo-Saxon and Latin.  Even further back, the Tower of Babel would still be standing.)   But doggone it, recognizing that language changes over time doesn’t make me a liberal. I recognize the inevitability of change.  I just insist that conservatism, at its best, is not tradition for the sake of tradition, any more than it’s just rich people being greedy.  When there are good reasons for things to mean what they mean, then conservatism is more than greed, more than blind obedience to tradition.  It’s about being right!

That’s why, despite my liberal education, I’m comfortable  on the grammatical right wing.  That’s why I go into spasms when I hear people give the now prevalent answer to the question, “Do you mind?” 

The question essentially means: “Do you object?”  Yet people these days almost exclusively answer the question the wrong way, not just on the street, but even in otherwise high brow movies and books:

“Do you mind if I sit here?”

“Sure.  Go ahead,” they say!

“Would you mind if I step on your toes?”

“Sure.  Go ahead.”

“Do you mind if I take all your money?”

“Yes, please do.”

What are these people saying?  Do they want their money to be taken?  People, please!  What they mean to say is:

“Do you mind if I sit here?”

No. (I don’t mind at all.) Go right ahead.”

“Would you mind if I step on your toes?”

Yes.  I certainly would.  It would hurt!”

“Do you mind if I take all your money?”

“Heck yes!  Someone call a cop!”

True conservatives believe that some things are right, and others wrong, not because their mothers told them so, but because there are good reasons things are the way they are.

(That’s why they call them “right.”)

My granddaughter refers to having done things “on accident.”  When her mother doesn’t flinch, I’m not surprised, because her mother was the one who first made me flinch upon presenting me with the offensive phrase some thirty years ago.  But after thirty years of arguing unsuccessfully that “on accident” is wrong, must I now watch the abomination get passed on to yet another generation? 

I decided I should consult authority.  (After all, “authority” is the preferred weapon of liberals and conservatives alike, even if choice of authority varies.) And so I went to the indisputable source of all modern authority, the Internet, and googling on ‘by accident, versus on purpose,’ I came across a near unanimity of authority.  With nary an exception, these sites treated the problem as if nothing but the opinions of the masses mattered.

To a website, they agreed that “by accident” is correct in written English, and “on accident” incorrect, because “on accident” is hardly ever seen in ‘serious’ writing.  (‘Serious’ was conveniently not defined.) But when it comes to spoken English, all the authorities were on the infinitely tolerant left wing, agreeing that “on accident” has overtaken “by accident” among younger Americans.  Therefore, they conclude, when it comes to correctness, “it all depends on what sounds right to you.”

Egads! Even the esteemed Chicago Manual of Style seems to treat the question as a matter of popularity!

Hogwash, I say!  Someone please call the Queen! Rightness should remain rightness for reasons other than popularity! 

The authorities agree that “on accident” appears to have arisen by analogy to ‘on purpose.’  But uniformly, these authorities fail to address WHY there is a difference.  They fail to appreciate why things should always happen “on” purpose, but “by” accident.  

As with “I’m done,”  the problem is a failure to account for agency.  A failure to distinguish between the thing that is doing and the thing that’s getting done.

“By” is a preposition that speaks directly to agency.  If a ball was hit “by” you, then you were the one that hit the ball.  In contrast, if the ball hit you in the face while you weren’t looking, it was surely thrown by someone else – which is to say (from your perspective) by accident.  “By accident” means that whatever happened was done by someone, or something – some agent of causation – other than you yourself having willed it to be so..

“On” has many meanings, but one of them is to express alignment with purpose.  We say that the arrow we shot was “on” target if we shot it where we wanted to.  We do something “on” principle when we do it in accordance with our guiding philosophies.  We do something “on” faith when it is in alignment with what we hope to be true.  We do something “on” a hunch if our action is in alignment with our guess.  A rest stop is convenient if it is “on” the route we’re traveling.  This use of “on” is all about staying focused “on” our goal, remaining “on” our intended path.

So when we do something designed to achieve an intended result, and we do it successfully, it only makes sense to say we did it “on” purpose, i.e., in alignment with our purpose.  But when we fail – when, despite our own plans, some alien force intervenes, when some freak happening produces an unintended consequence – it only makes sense to say that it happened “by” the influence of something else – i.e., “by” accident. 

This is not by accident.  At least when it comes to language, .being right is all about being on the right. And if anything else makes sense to you, you can be sure it’s a part of whatever’s left.

Right?