Dawn Reader

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

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

You're Not One of Those

Although you corrected the usage and grammar and punctuation of other folks for more than four decades (in your English-teacher career), you're not a "grammar Nazi," a term that actually makes you quite uncomfortable--that term that people use to characterize those who tell you, for example, not to use the second person when you write.

You're uncomfortable because your father fought those actual Nazis in World War II, and you find the casual use of the term these days to be more than alarming. (Calling Pres. Obama a Nazi is so far beyond sensible as to be invisible.) But you also know that it's just how things evolve. Your generation is the last to have lived during WW II (you were born late in 1944; the war would end the following year). And although you don't really remember a thing about it, you do remember your father's Bronze Star, the pictures of him in uniform, the jerky, jumpy 8mm film of him in Hawaii after Pearl Harbor. You don't remember his war stories, though, because he didn't tell any. For most people alive today, World War II is "back there" somewhere--in the mist of history, alongside the Civil War and the Trojan War (they were about the same time, right?).

You used to tell your students--later on (not at first)--that Standard English is pretty much an invention. We basically made it all up. And we keep changing it--all the time. Punctuation, usage, spelling (it was Noah Webster who "Americanized" all those words like humor--no more humour for us!). Any number of the "rules" you learned in elementary and junior high school are things that no one really observes too much any longer--like the difference between will and shall. Oh, did you do countless worksheets on the topic!

If you read literature from earlier centuries (from, say, Shakespeare forward), you quickly see that some of our conventions have changed quite a bit. Here's Pip, for example, in the opening chapter of Dickens' Great Expectations (1861):

"My sister, sir,—Mrs. Joe Gargery,—wife of Joe Gargery, the blacksmith, sir."

Notice the commas alongside the dashes. You don't see that in contemporary prose.

And so many of the differences your teachers taught you are disappearing--the difference between nauseous and nauseating, between farther and further, between imply and infer, between who and whom, may and might, and on and on. Sure, you still (usually) observe these in your own formal writing, but in much of the conversation you hear, much of the writing you read, others are "letting go"--or never learned the distinction in the first place and don't really care.

And there are what's called "hypercorrections"--forms of words people use because they think they sound more ... "educated," principally because they are more rare. People sometimes say between you and I or I feel badly or give it to whomever asks for it--and all are "wrong" according to the traditional rules.

And you learned some other "rules" about writing that veer near ludicrous.

  • No sentence fragments.
  • And you don't start a sentence with and.
  • The passive voice should be avoided.
  • You don't use you in formal writing. It's hard to tell who the you even is.
And on and on.

So ... you're a child of an earlier age, and you try to stay true to many of the certainties that really aren't. But some of them are sounding more and more awkward in contemporary speech and writing. Stiff and formal. So you sometimes avoid them--constructions like the Someone left his or her book here. That's just ugly, you think. So you try to avoid it, to use plurals whenever you can.

And you keep learning, trying to adapt. Just yesterday, for example, your word-of-the-day calendar featured onerous, a word you'd always pronounced OH-nuh-rus. But the pronunciation on the calendar says it's AH-nuh-rus. (You checked some dictionaries and found that both are acceptable--though AH is generally listed before OH.)

And, yes, you must confess: There are things that bother you--hearing people confuse forms of lie and lay or treat disinterested and uninterested as synonyms. Etc. But you've mellowed over the years and realize that by the time your grandsons are grown (and maybe before) none of it's going to make much of a difference. Hell, at your local health club, the managers have removed the apostrophes from the locker rooms--no more Men's and Women's but Mens and Womens. It's coming, the demise of the possessive apostrophe.

You found some "grammar Nazi" sites on the Internet--one even featured an image, a version of the swastika reconfigured to be a G. But you didn't think it was funny, so you didn't copy it, didn't paste it into this blog. There are countless other similar images on the web, too--easy to find. You didn't use them, either.

Instead, you took a deep breath and vowed to avoid writing in the second person. And this time you meant it.

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