Wednesday, April 21, 2010

White elephant in the room


There is a white elephant in my living room. She believes in the need for accurate and meaningful communication among her kind, has been called a grammar sergeant and, like many others of her generation, is in danger of extinction. I'm afraid I am that white elephant. I cannot stand the way the language is abused every day, in the media (especially by high-paid wordsmiths), by some of my otherwise very bright students and even by well-educated adults.

Before you think I am totally intolerant, let me inform you that I do understand that language changes and is a growing, living entity that reflects our times and mores in innumerable ways. One example I often cite is that if one came across a dead body, the reaction would probably not be the grammatically correct "It is he" but more likely "It's him!" I also acknowledge that formal language differs from casual speech and slang.

For years I have merely tried to armor my students with the skills to speak and write as eloquently as they can to communicate effectively with educated and intelligent people. I certainly don't expect everyone I encounter to be William Buckley or William Safire or a writer for The New Yorker. In addition, I do not correct my friends nor judge them; I don't want to be like my gourmet cook buddy who receives few dinner invitations because these hosts are afraid their culinary skills will fade in contrast. I want people to talk with me!

One of my favorite quotes describes Winston Churchill, who "mobilized the English language and sent it into battle." What a tribute, and what force his eloquence had in rallying his people to triumph over one of the hardest times for their country. I yearn for speakers like that today.

What I really hope for is that the best of our language won't entirely disappear, in spite of what I see as the atrocities of things like "me and him are going to the movies" or "it works good." I am dismayed at what I see as illiteracy run rampant. This winter I was subjected to a line running across the screen on the local NBC morning news that proclaimed (I kid you not) that "classes in ... school district are cancld today do to weather."


Recently, I shared with some students a story about an English woman whose son died in Afghanistan and was offended that the prime minister of her country, acknowledging the death, had sent her a letter that was filled with grammatical errors. Her complaint was that her son had given his life for her country and it was difficult to believe that these authorities hadn't spent just a few minutes to express their sympathy in a correct way. I agreed with her and was aghast at that lapse. (Someone in authority wrote the letter—if not the PM, then an aide who should proofread or ask another to edit.) Then what surprised me is that no one in the class seemed to share my sense of sadness at this mishandling of an important communication process. One of the kids even said about the distraught mother, "Some people are never satisfied."

So what does this all mean? Maybe I will keep wailing alone in my living room or to the occasional venerable friend who will listen. Maybe it isn't even that important how we write and talk to each other. Maybe, as a colleague pointed out to me, the proliferation of social networks and abbreviated spellings and new standards in Twitter and texting are just innovations that we have to accept. Actually, he reminded me, our language may well change radically with these concise messages and develop into a new shorthand for our busy lives.

Should we care? Does anyone really care anymore? Should I waste my precious time in bewailing the inevitable? Should I continue my fruitless quest, like Don Quixote, chasing the windmills of the usage of "lie" and "lay" or subject-verb agreement into an endless landscape of darkening frustration and futility? Maybe, like the British mother, I am just never satisfied, and will waste a lot of time at my desk tsk-tsking the wordy abominations!

To stretch the metaphor of the white elephant, perhaps no one really wants this old fogy around endlessly yapping about the joys of eloquence. I hope not. I hope this pachyderm won't wind up dismissed like others of my kind.

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