Tuesday, November 14, 2006

All Is Not Lost

by Mike Crawmer

I beg your indulgence as my rant about the use and abuse of the English language continues. (I promise to be less cranky in my next entry.)

Take “I,” that self-centered pronoun so beloved of the “me” generation. They love it so much they use it everywhere, even when “me” is the obvious choice, as in this example taken from an e-mail message I was copied on at work: “Please let Mike and I know when you get a chance.”

To the college-educated author of this note, I say, “Tell I this: Do you ever listen to what you’re saying? Take it from I--probably not.”

Then there's the case of the disappearing “go.” It wasn’t that long ago that people “went” somewhere; nowadays people only “come” or “came.” (The same problem afflicts “take,” which is fast fading from use as everyone “brings” things to and fro.) The chattering heads of the broadcast media go out of their way to muddy the “going” and “coming” of people. One local TV reporter told of an assailant who “came into the house” to shoot his gun at terrified occupants. Was the reporter in the house when this happened? Of course not. Was the intruder invited? I doubt it.

Eventually, I fear, I’ll have to accept the loss of “go,” “going,” and “gone.” The English language is always in flux, continuously adding, dropping and adapting words. But I will never accept a clerk or waitress (or waiter if male, but never a server, a term better suited to a robot) referring to me a “guest.” Where I come from, guests don’t pay, so don’t call me a guest if you expect me to hand over money. “Customer” was good enough for me before, and it still describes me. Hell, I’ll even accept “sucker” before I’ll accept “guest.”

Is there any hope for the salvaging what’s left of the integrity of a fickle language? Or are we (well, me at least) doomed to suffer the slings and arrows of these outrageous stupidities?

Maybe not. It seems that dismal scores in the verbal section of the SAT college entrance exam have prompted some educators to re-evaluate grammar instruction. The Washington Post reported recently that some schools in the metropolitan D.C. area are instituting structured grammar instruction for the first time in decades. And instructors are starting to consider grammar when grading papers (gee, what a concept!).

That is good news. I should be happy. But what does this trend portend for the editing profession? Will the return of grammar education mean a future where everyone knows that “action” isn’t a verb? That a comma never goes between the subject and the verb (an all-too-common outrage at work)? That dangling modifiers are a no-no?

Somehow, I don’t think I need to worry about the future for editors. We didn’t arrive at this muddle overnight. The solution that pulls us out of the muck will be a long time a-coming.


Brenda Roger said...

Now, Mike, that was VERY funny.

lisa curry said...

Well said, Mike. If it comforts you any to know it, my children, who are in second and third grade, are learning grammar in school. At this point, it's mostly identifying subjects/predicates, nouns/verbs, and proper punctuation. The 7-year-old got a B in English, mainly because he has trouble remembering that according to the rules of second-grade grammar, all sentences that start with how or what and aren't questions must end with an exclamation point, not a period. For example: "What a cute baby!" Or, "How thoughtful you are!" I keep reminding him of that rule, because they throw a couple of those sentences into every English test, but secretly, I question its usefulness and validity. It seems to me that there are instances when a period is appropriate. For example: "What a pain in the ass this punctuation business is." (irritated grumbling, not an exclamation) "You got a D on your English test. What a genius you are." (sarcasm, not an exclamation)

Joyce said...

Mike, the good news is that as long as there are people who don't know the difference between "I" and "me" editors will always have a job!

If you want to see some really terrible writing/grammar/spelling, you should see the police reports! The only thing I'm permitted to correct when I type them is spelling. Grammar and punctuation have to stay the way the same as the original report. It drives me nuts! One officer can write a report that's a whole page long and it's all one sentence. And according to the officers, there/their/they're are all the same thing!

Joyce said...

Looks like I should have edited my post before I hit the publish button! Oops.

Annette said...

Oh, Mike, I so agree with the use of the word "guest." The first time I heard it used like that was when I started teaching yoga at a new studio and the owner referred to the students as "guests." I told her "they're STUDENTS not GUESTS!" And she actually changed the sign-in sheet to reflect that. One small step in the right direction.

Nancy said...

Thing is, the freelance copyeditors who are being hired by cost-conscious publishing houses these days are fresh out of college and go by those strict interpretations of rules Lisa mentioned. The good news is that about half way thru a ms, they lose interest and stop making all their little red marks. So undoing their nitpicky changes gets easier.

kathie said...

Funny post, Mike. I fear I'll be giving you fits with my grammar. I did learn it formally, but mostly I write by ear. Which goes right to your issue--language must morph at the spoken level much faster than the written. I'd think so anyway. Hope your day is poor grammar free!

Tory said...

In general, I accept the premise that language is fluid and word useage changes over time. Still . . .

Impact is JUST NOT a verb!

Kristine said...

Funny post, Mike!

It's a good thing we've got you around here to help kept us in line.

mike said...

Kristine--thank God you didn't write "keep we in line"! (hmmm, small joke)
Lisa--I agree with you on that one. Maybe at that grade level it's just easier to teach strict rules rather than nuance.
Joyce--I don't think I'd last a day in your job! You have my sympathy.
Kathie--My dirty little secret is that I'm forever confusing it's and its and there and they're. I blame that on my typing--I type faster than I think. But lately I've become totally confused over whether something is less than or fewer than. Which is why I keep several reference guides handy--my favorite being The New York Public Library Writer's Guide to Style and Usage.

Pat said...

Lisa-Now I'm confused...How would you conclude a sentence that begins with "howscome?" As in "Howscome yins jagoffs is always late, n'ant?"

Joyce said...

Pat, I am SO glad I wasn't drinking anything when I read your comment. It would not have been pretty!

Gina said...

Mike, I share your concerns with commas. I work with a lot of folks who went to grade school in the no-grammar era. One woman assured me that she'd been taught that it's correct to use a comma wherever she would stop to breathe. [She must be breathing in some pretty odd places -- a made up example true to her style: The little old house, stood in the darkest part of, the forest where the wicked old witch had built, it herself."] My other gripe is spelling -- I miss "led." Just because "read" is the past tense of "read" doesn't mean that "lead" is the past tense of "lead." Right? And what about spit?? Isn't "spat" the past tense of "spit"? I grind my teeth when I see "spit" as the past tense, but I'm ready to punch walls when I see "spitted" (unless they're talking about a roasting fowl, of course). Grrrr. [Or should that be Grrrr!?]

Anonymous said...

Well, folks, the lovely thing about language is that it is, by nature, progressive! It is always changing!

That means:
1. The rules you learned waaaaay back when you were in grade school may not necessarily apply anymore!
2. Language is a perfect medium for social change! Think the fifties were oppressive and freaky times? Then let's ditch their oppressive rules! Changing the way we use language creates a distinction between then and now.

We should also realize that spoken language can be formal or colloquial, as can written language. Just because it is written, doesn't mean it has to fit your strict ideology on what is right or wrong.

While I agree that educated people should have basic knowledge of grammar and spelling rules, these nitpicky points say more about the picker than the picked! You pickers are not letting the English language evolve!

Luckily, you writer types are in a position of power here! We may not always be able to elect progressive folks to our government, but we can allow progress in language (I feel a past progressive joke is in order here, but I can't think of one!).

"Eff" the octogenarians who wrote our grammar books!


kathie said...

Wow, a searing response from Anonymous, huh? When do I get my author powers?

mr. guy said...

Well 'anonymous,' I couldn't agree more. Language is a democratic institution: the people have the power to change it. Over time and with enough lipservice, they can even transform a noun into a verb.

Power to the speaking masses!