Commentary

Saunders: Proper language is dead, and I don’t feel good about it

bsaunders@newsobserver.comAugust 18, 2013 

Because 1963 was such a historically significant year in America, we’ll be observing the 50th anniversary of all sorts of events. There’s the March on Washington and the assassination of President Kennedy, among other things.

One anniversary no one will be observing this year, but one we all should be, is the 31st anniversary of the death of the English language. The unofficial time of death was the fall of 1982, which is when my nephew’s elementary school teacher, Mrs. Wright, told me she didn’t grade students’ papers for grammar or spelling after I complained about a bafflingly high grade he’d received.

Alas, as noted earlier this year, it appears that Mrs. Wright was right and I was wrong. Watching television news, commercials and politicians, it becomes obvious that no one else is grading for spelling, syntax or grammar, either.

On CNN last week, one read this sentence scrolling across the bottom of the screen: “218 Philadelphia schools may remain closed due to budget cuts.” Here’s why. “The district need $50 million from the city by Friday.”

Not only are the city and school district in disagreement, but so are the subject and verb in that sentence. Please, guys, keep those schools open.

‘Her’ was?

To show that that verbal misstep was not unique, within two minutes came this gem: “Father of Anderson’s friend has confirmed that it was her who was answering the questions.”

Her was? Well, I declare. One is left wondering “What else did her say?”

Anyone who cares a whit about the English language has to be saddened. I initially thought that I, a former English major, was the only one distressed that a premium is no longer placed on proper use, pronunciation and spelling. Since that original column I’ve frequently heard from others, usually retired English teachers, who bemoan that fact, too.

The point is, one needn’t obsessively seek out such errors of spelling, grammar and syntax, as I do; they slap you in the face.

I knew bad times were a-comin’ when, several years ago, I dialed a Durham office and, in a professional tone, asked to speak to the man whose name was atop the company’s letterhead.

Why impress me?

The woman who answered called out to him, possibly without removing the phone from her mouth to ensure that I would hear, that “some man is on the phone talkin’ all proper. I don’t know why he tryin’ to impress me.”

Why, indeed?

Soon thereafter, I telephoned a local university’s campus police to ask for a spokesperson. The person who answered called out mockingly – or so I perceived it – that “some dude who sounds like Don Cornelius is on the phone.”

During the New York mayoral debate on TV last week, candidate Christine Quinn said this in response to a comment by virtual flasher and fellow candidate Anthony Weiner: “Neither me nor anybody else on this stage should be lectured by Anthony Weiner.”

She should have added “…unless it’s on how to take selfies with your smartphone and talk dirty.”

It’s disturbing when a candidate for mayor of the nation’s largest city misuses “I” and “me,” but it is egregious when the president of the country does it, too. Last week, President Barack Obama, a Harvard-educated lawyer, said, “No one is more offended than me.” I don’t remember the context or the rest of the sentence, since I lost consciousness immediately afterward.

Speaking of the president, Michael Smerconish, substituting as host of the “Chris Matthews Show” on MSNBC, announced last week that Obama was inviting the 1972 Super Bowl champion Miami Dolphins to the White House because former President Richard Nixon “was too embroiled in the Watergate scandal to extend the traditional invite to the winning team.”

Invite? Invite? Lord help us if the host of a nationally televised talk show doesn’t know that one can’t extend an invite, only an invitation. Oy.

Thousands are expected in Washington next week to commemorate the 1963 March on Washington and to demand many of the same things the original marchers wanted, namely jobs and voting rights.

Wouldn’t it be nice if, someday soon, 1 million English teachers, parents and students descended upon Washington arm in arm to demand that proper spoken and written word use be adhered to? In the spirit of protest, they could sing a protest anthem from the 1960s, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s “Teach Your Children Well.”

Back on CNN, we were told that former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison and that his wife “weeped” – I swear, they wrote “weeped” – upon hearing the sentence.

Anyone who loves the English language weeped after reading that. More appropriately, they wept.

R.I.P., proper English. We hardly knew ye.

bsaunders@newsobserver.com or 919-836-2811

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service