Something Rotten in the State of Grammar
Descriptive versus prescriptive grammarI still haven’t recovered from the revelation that “grammatical mistake” isn’t a mistake.
English grammar is basically pattern recognition. Once we recognize an established pattern in the language we attempt to maintain it. Prescriptive grammar (which attempts to dictate how people should speak) eventually derives from descriptive grammar (how people actually speak). Of course, “ain’t no denyin’,” that what some grammarians might take for egregious, fossilized errors, Everyman accepts as just “speakin’ plain.”
Can a mistake be grammatical?It may be swimming against the current, spitting into the wind, and [insert your own cliche here] to challenge the evolution of the language and attempt to manipulate prescriptive grammar, but that’s what we pedants do. Inspired by the expression “grammatical mistake,” I have come to surmise that there is something rotten in the state of English grammar.
Adjectives that end in "al"I first conjectured that the problem could be located in how we use and misuse adjectives that end in “al.” Typically a noun is used as an adjective and then we add “al” to give the adjective a new meaning, as shown here:
Noun Adjective “al” adjective
economics economic economical
politics politic political
logic logic logical
rhetoric rhetoric rhetorical
mathematics mathematics mathematical
grammar grammar grammatical
Adding "al" changes the meaning of the adjectiveThe pattern shows that adding “al” changes the meaning of the adjective: a “logic lesson” versus a “logical lesson,” a “rhetoric question” versus a “rhetorical question,” a “grammar book” versus a “grammatical book,” an “economic study” versus an “economical study.”
My number of “al” adjectives (above) is quite small. Like the proverbial blind monk attempting to describe an elephant by feeling its tail, I was perhaps considering an untypical sample. Scientifically, I should be considering all “al” adjectives. Ooops! Have you any idea how many words in the English language end in “al”? The internet mocks me again by providing various lists of words that end in “al.”
This list offers 3544 “al” words:
Meaning of the suffix "al"This site offers 1272 words that end with the suffix “al,” and adds that the suffix “al” means “relating to,” as if to mock me once again for thinking “grammatical mistake” was a mistake.
What can we say about words that end in “al”? Most of them seem to be adjectives. Nouns like “cereal” and “offal” are among the rare “al” nouns, but they also serve as adjectives. It would be an exaggeration, if not an outright mistake, to categorize “al” as a suffix in all the instances listed, if we mean by “suffix” something added to an already existing or independent English word.
Is "al" a suffix?For example “leth” is not an word, but “lethal” is.
I would imagine that there is an etymological explanation that can trace “leth” as a Greek or Latin source and “al” as a suffix, but the issue I am trying to grasp is what happens within the English language when you add “al” to an existing adjective. There are many “al” adjectives which have no form or root in English when you remove the “al.”
Among those that do, the adjectives seem to consistently show change. What does the change mean?