Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Sunday, April 1, 2012

"I BELIEVE you meant ...."

My mother was an English teacher.  She corrected my usage all the time.  It taught me to say and write short sentences.  Really short ones.  Short.  (I know, Mom: fragments.)

As I stumbled through toddler-hood and into a most miry adolescence, my older brother, Richard (three years my senior), assumed some of the mantle, correcting me when I deviated a micron from Standard English.  It often--no always--pissed me off.

Later, teaching at WRA, I had a dear friend and colleague, Mac (James McClelland), who assumed that role.  In fact, at the local coffee shop cum drug store the owners kept a Webster's unabridged behind the counter to resolve our disputes--our logomachies and grammar wars!  When I would send forth a solecism into the coffee-shop air, Mac would look at me with sad disappointment and say, "I believe you meant ... [whatever it was]."

(Meanwhile, my mother, 92, has never stopped--though her technique has become more crudely subtle.  Instead of stopping me in mid-sentence and correcting me, she will repeat a close version of the locution I just abused--but in Standard English--making sure she utters the key words in italics.  "You want to be disinterested, don't you?")

Are you surprised that I stuttered badly throughout elementary and junior high?  I figured if I stuttered, you know, maybe they'd correct me before I got too far along in the sentence ... save everyone some time.

As a result of all this attention and tuition, I didn't have to study much for English quizzes in junior high and high school.  When I saw the choices on the "choose-one" kind of quiz, I just remembered how my mom and brother talked (Dad, too, though he never corrected me ... well, for my usage, anyhow).  The problem was ... I didn't really understand why any of these things were correct.  And so when Latin I rolled around in ninth grade, I had no clue about case and gender and number and such.  Words like ablative and dative sounded like something from a Flash Gordon episode--something spoken by an alien with a scrunchy face and a bad attitude.

It wasn't until I started teaching grammar and usage myself that I started having epiphanies every five minutes.

I started thinking about this because of something I recently read in ... yes ... John O'Hara (again).  In his fiction, his characters occasionally correct one another's usage.  And in a rather snotty/snooty interview O'Hara did with some students on The Daily Princetonian in January 1959, I read this exchange:

QUESTION: Whom do you think is our greatest living writer?
O'HARA: That word should be who, not whom.  Nominative case.  (An Artist Is His Own Fault, 204)

And that's his entire answer.

As I've written here before, O'Hara had some "issues."  A delightful mixture of an inferiority complex and a towering ego.

In my last decades in the classroom, I never corrected a student's oral usage, not in front of the class--there are better ways to handle such things.  (Our feelings about our language, like our bodies, are most tender.  There is not much difference between correcting a who-whom problem in front of the class that noting that a student has gotten fat lately--and you didn't have that pimple on your nose yesterday, did you?  It's really bright today!)

Joyce and I correct each other all the time (lovingly, of course), and we always preface it with Mac's locution: "I believe you meant ...."

Sometimes, it pisses me off, you know?


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1 comment:

  1. In one of Philip Roth's books, maybe The Ghost Writer, he spends forever talking about how he hates the misuse of the word, hopefully. It's supposed to be the narrator, but he goes on and on and on and on against the way the young will say something like: "Hopefully, I will be a writer." Because I, too, misuse that word, I often hear Philip Roth ranting in the back of my mind . . .