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I saw a sentence: "I would like to be a scientist who can command English."

What do you think about usage of "command"? Should we say " ...who has a good command of English."?

Could you please explain which sentence is better? If it it wrong usage, tell me the reason. Thank you in advance.

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The second sentence is correct. The first is not. One does not simply command English :-) –  Rory Alsop Jul 3 '13 at 12:45
    
Oh, Thank you very much for you quick answer! I would appriciate if you could tell me why the first one is incorrect. –  Ume Jul 3 '13 at 12:47
    
What would you command English to do? –  Rory Alsop Jul 3 '13 at 13:01
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You can command English, and so can I, and so can any man; but does it obey when you command it? –  Peter Shor Jul 3 '13 at 13:08
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To be able to command English or any other language you need to be a conjurer not a scientist :) –  misensalem Jul 3 '13 at 13:53

2 Answers 2

Today the verb "command" commonly implies to most users that you would order someone to do something. Since a language like English cannot follow an order, you cannot command it.

But there is a somewhat old-fashioned, maybe obsolete use of the verb command which is reflected in this quote from Tennyson:

"My harp would prelude woe—I cannot all command the strings."

Here the meaning is control or mastery, which is meaning III in the Oxford English Dictionary. And with this meaning (which, in the OED, has been documented to be current until the mid 1800s), your phrase is certainly possible, and actually still (though rarely) in use today:

"It is easy to see that the idea of ‘knowing’ a language will be in the same trouble, as will the project of characterising the abilities or capacities a person must have if he commands a language." ~ Donald Davidson, A nice derangement of epitaphs

So in fact the sentence you saw is correct.

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"correct" in a technical sense, yes, but I think if you tried to use it in everyday speech you'd get odd looks. –  Lynn Jul 3 '13 at 14:35
    
Thank you very much for your instructive answers. Now I feel good to know correct usage of 'command'. –  Ume Jul 3 '13 at 14:59
    
@Lynn You are right. Do you feel my note that the usage is old-fashioned is enough to warn anyone of that reaction? Or do I need to spell it out? –  what Jul 3 '13 at 16:13
    
@what - On second reading, I think you say that with your use of 'old fashioned' and 'rarely'. –  Lynn Jul 3 '13 at 21:05
    
What?! People didn't know this? And even think it is not quite acceptable today? The OD has not changed its entries yet, and I don't think it would any time soon. Both the OP's sentences are grammatically correct and make sense. –  Kris Jul 4 '13 at 5:45

"To have a good command of English" is correct modern British usage, "to command English" is not.

SOED has "command of language", meaning "skill in speech, articulacy" (SOED noun sense 3). Oxforddictionaries.com has "he had a brilliant command of English" (noun sense 2) as an example of "the ability to use or control something".

That's using "command" as a noun, broadly meaning "mastery". You wouldn't "mastery English" (you'd "have mastery of English"), so instead of "command English" it's "have command of English".

Why it doesn't work using the verb "to command": I can command the strings of a musical instrument (although it sounds a bit archaic) because I have control over them - I can make them sound in response to my will. I can give them commands and they will act in response to those commands. I can't make the English language act in response to my will - if I tell the English language to do something, it won't - so I can't "command English".

(To "master English" is fine, by the way, although if someone can master English it just means they're capable of mastering it, not that they necessarily have mastered it).

The Davidson example (raised by user "what" in their answer), "if he commands a language", is correct (though unusual) usage but is not the same as the OP's example "a scientist who can command English".

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