For the last (not "past") week or so, I have felt very (not "awfully") self-conscious about my usage of the English language. There are two reasons for this:
Firstly, I read a review of the new translation of Flaubert's Madame Bovary, and was deeply moved while reading about Flaubert's fascination with perfection. Flaubert spent twelve hours a day writing, but produced only about a page of text per week. For him, "[a] good sentence in prose should be like a good line in poetry, unchangeable.”
Secondly, while browsing through a reference book from 1900, I came across a section titled "misuse of words". I never knew that the word "execute" does not mean to put to death, but that "the law is executed when the criminal is hanged". Also, it is wrong to use "bravery" for "courage": "[b]ravery is inborn, instinctive. Courage is a product of reason, calculation. Men who are simply brave are careless, while the courageous man is always cautious." It is also wrong to use the word "such" for "so". One should say "so extravagant a young man", not "such an extravagant young man".
When it comes to language, I am the first one to acknowledge the fluid nature of it. Languages change and develop, and what was true in 1900 is not necessarily so anymore. The very nature of language is to do things we don't think are possible, and I often take advantage of it: I love creating new words in Finnish, and my sentences are often all over the place (an absurd and meaningless expression, a lot like "every once in a while"). However, I can also be anal about Finnish: one of my pet peeves in Finnish is compound words and the inability of Finnish speakers to use them correctly. It annoyes me when people capitalise the word for Christmas in Finnish - it is joulu, lower case, always. In English I over-hyphenate and spell in odd ways just because I think it looks fun. I use 'croci' for 'crocuses' even if the latter is more commonly used. I punctuate whenever I feel like it - a practice I would never entertain in Finnish. The truth (not "fact of the matter") is that I punctuate badly in English because I don't know how to punctuate well. The very nature of language in general, and that of English in particular, allows me to do this. English, with its odd range of 500 million to 1.8 billion speakers, is so widespread it can do whatever it likes, and there is nothing it can't do. So why am I torn? Isn't the changing nature of English good? Why does Flaubert's belief in perfect language get to me? Why should I care about people saying "promise" when they should be saying "assure"?
One reason is Shakespeare. I have tried to read Shakespeare in the original language, but I don't understand him. I can feel that there is beauty in his usage of English, but my knowledge of English is not sophisticated enough to understand it. When I try to write (not "try and write") pretty English, I find it looks crammed and empty rather than rich and meaningful. I often reach out for the thesaurus in my attempt to beautify my use of English. I don't concentrate on learning more. The more free and imperfect my use of English becomes, and the more I ape the free English of others, the less I feel I am saying. (A lot of times I don't even know what I am saying.) My guess is that this is also true of other speakers of English, native or not. In itself (another meaningless phrase) this is not a problem. It does make reading Shakespeare difficult, though. It is also a matter of instinct: my ears can tell that my English (and the English of many others) does not sound meaningful, or even worse, it does not sound beautiful. Of course, one could argue that the aim of language is communication rather than beauty, but I take my chances and accept the need for beauty in language at face value.
Another reason comes down to my desire to save things old and still useful. Is it absolutely necessary to make the distinction between courage and bravery? Perhaps not, but the world is a richer place with the distinction in it. Grammar and spelling rules exist for a reason, and they have a history. It is probably not a surprise (not "no surprise") that I love etymological dictionaries. I believe history of everything is important. As long as we carry with us a sense of understanding of where we have come from, we are richer. We gain nothing by forgetting, but a lot if we remember.
I feel embarrased to admit that as experienced of an English speaker as I am, my skills are nowhere near where they should be. I am not a native speaker and will never get to that level, but I feel the need to educate myself. I want to be able to write beautiful English. Maybe consulting old reference books isn't the smartest way to go about it, but it is a lot of fun. If I am sure about anything, it is this: it is never, ever, a good idea to take fun out of language.
Duffel coat: Salvation Army
Silk dress: second hand Laura Ashley, Fida
Tights: JC Penney
Ankle boots: Max&Co.