Commentary

Saunders: I’m not alone in my ire against improper language

bsaunders@newsobserver.comOctober 6, 2013 

The situation is perhaps not as dire as first reported.

A few months ago, I wrote that it appeared proper English usage had become optional in even the most formal settings and among the most highly educated. I decried that some teachers no longer grade students on spelling or grammar. (On what do they grade them, then – tying their shoelaces?)

Woe, woe is us, I proclaimed. Shall we simply start communicating through grunts?

Should I chillax?

Scores of you told me to, in the words of one reader, “Chillax. The English language is constantly evolving and changing.”

As tempting as it is to dismiss anything from someone who says “chillax” – which I assume gratingly seeks to combine “chill” and “relax” – the letter writer actually had a point. Words and constructions that a few years ago were deemed the utterances of uneducated philistines are now considered acceptable or, at least, less grating.

Most of you, though, are as distressed as I am when you hear misconjugated verbs and other grammatical faux pas from people who should know better. That is the key, of course. Some people haven’t had the opportunities others have had and should be spared our opprobrium.

For instance, U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia gets a lifetime pass from me whenever he mispronounces a word, as he is wont to do: Often, instead of studying, the civil rights activist was out getting his head beat in by cops so others of us could learn, among other things, the principles of proper grammar.

Most people, though, have no such excuses and are merely lazy.

A delightful letter from a woman named Genny, though, gave encouragement that the battle to save the English language is still worth fighting to the last syllable.

Genny wrote: “I, too, believe the language is suffering a slow death, and, as it dies, it screams in my ears in pain and rage. We grew up in the 1930s. Daddy had lost his hand in an accident in 1934 and was out of work for four years. We went to school barefoot. ... (We looked like the kids you see in the pictures from the Depression.) But Mama and Daddy made sure we spoke English correctly, and perhaps that’s why none of us had any problem getting a job. ... When I was a young girl (I’m 83 years old), If I, or any of my classmates, used incorrect grammar, either spoken or written, the teacher would instantly correct us, sometimes with a whack on the hand with a ruler.

“I want to share with you an experience I had with my darling younger sister about a year ago. She had very advanced Alzheimer’s disease, could no longer walk, and spoke only gibberish most of the time. (She died just before Christmas last year.)

“I was visiting her at Shell Point nursing home in Fort Myers Beach. We were in the rec room. She was in a wheelchair, and I was sitting next to her. Next to me sat another patient in a wheelchair. One of the aides came and wiped off the woman’s face and asked her, ‘Mrs. Jones, do you want to stay here for a while longer, or would you like to return to your room and lay down?’

“My sister heard the aide, turned her head, and spoke clearly over me, ‘Would you like to lie down?’ Old lessons,” Genny wrote in closing, “seem to stick around for a long time.”

Amen for that.

Time to march

In ending that August column, I asked “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.’”

Even more appropriate it would be if millions marched to the Mall in Washington – once the government shutdown ends – and appropriated another protest anthem: “We shall learn to speak, We shall learn to speak. We shall learn to speak someday.”

Saunders: 919-836-2811 or bsaunders@newsobserver.com

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