Is It Dead Yet?
The columnist gives us his take on what he sees as the insidious deterioration of our language skills – and a few other things.
Every American child should grow up knowing a second language, preferably English. ~Mignon McLaughlin, The Neurotic's Notebook, 1960
I have one endearing trait that I’m extremely proud of. I have an innate ability to write about things that other people think, but are afraid to say for fear of retribution. I hold to the philosophy of, Retribution be damned! Full speed ahead!
But as proud as I am to be an up-front kind of guy; this attribute has caused me my share of problems in the past.
When I lived in Arizona back in the mid to late seventies, my brother-in-law and I were frequent visitors at the Wander Inn, a fine-dining establishment just outside of Phoenix.
Okay, it was more of a sleazy bar than a fine-dining spot; a redneck bar to be precise. But it served its purpose.
Surprisingly, I got along very well with the Wander Inn’s clientele; a diverse group made up of cowboys, construction workers, cowgirls, more construction workers, a handful of vagrants, more cowboys, a few migrant farmworkers who were forever huddled in a dark corner in order to avoid La Magra and a really friendly black guy named Lucky.
I never thought Lucky was really all that friendly. I figured it was just a façade; a way to stay on the good side of the rednecks; his method of self-preservation. I adopted the same philosophy and it served me well – most of the time!
There were two songs on the inn’s jukebox that got more play than a Foxwoods slot machine on Social Security check distribution day. The first was a little tune called, The Girls All Get Prettier At Closing Time; a chauvinistic but rather accurate depiction of men who wanted no more than a woman to love - on an interim basis.
The second song, Mamas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys, by The Highwaymen aka Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash, was without question the most popular song ever played in any juke joint west of the Mississippi.
And that was my downfall; the song that got me in a heap of trouble one warm Arizona night.
My brother-in-law and I had stopped in to the Wander Inn after a long, hot day at work with the intention of doing nothing more than having a couple of drafts and heading home. Temperatures had been upwards of 110 degrees that day and we were really thirsty and well; we sort of stayed a little later than we’d planned. Hey, it happens!
We’d had a few beers and it was getting late so we decided to head home. We were just about ready to head out when Mamas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys blasted from the cheap, tinny juke box speakers for about the tenth time that evening. I turned to my brother-in-law and said, rather loudly, “Hey! They should call this this song, Mamas, Don't Let Your Cowboys Grow Up To Be Babies.”
The word babies had barely left my lips when a couple of goons in cowboy hats accompanied by several extremely inebriated construction workers with shaved heads, along with a contingent of characters who looked like they’d just stepped out of the bar in Star Wars beat a path to where my brother-in-law and I sat, still chuckling at my rather corny pun. Evidently, using their theme song as fodder for my little play on words hadn’t struck their collective funny bones.
I realized my humor had been wasted on them when one of the cowboys grabbed me by the arm and said rather angrily, “We don’t think that’s funny!” As you probably already know, I’m very observant. I pick up on vibes like that immediately. I knew there was trouble brewing.
I’m a good-sized guy and in my day I could handle myself pretty well in a tough situation. Unfortunately for me, that didn’t happen to be my day. So I used my military training and did what I had been taught to do to diffuse a highly volatile situation such as this.
I fell to my knees and pleaded for mercy. And then when the rednecks were suitably distracted by my brother-in-law’s incessant whining [a clever guise on his part]; we both got up and ran for the door as fast as we could. Thank God I’d been co-captain of my track team back at old MHS. All that training finally paid off.
Okay, I’ll admit it. Pleading for mercy and running away weren’t part of my military training, but hey; it worked and I’m alive to tell about it; a classic case of the end justifying the means.
Wow! Where were we before I took off on that little side trip? Oh yeah! I was telling you about my proclivity for saying things that other people think, but are afraid to say for fear they’ll get their bums kicked. I think I said for fear of retribution but after telling that last story, I think I like the bums kicked reference better.
But I regress. Not egress, which is what I was looking for in that redneck bar [a way out], but regress, meaning to go back. So, here I am going back. Ready? Let’s do it!
Let me point out a couple of things here. First of all, I referenced my propensity to ‘tell it like it is’ as being endearing. As it is with beauty, endearing is in the eye of the beholder.
Since I’m the one who has judiciously positioned the adjective [endearing] in front of the word, trait, and because it’s my eyes through which this is being beheld; that would make me the beholder and thus the aforementioned trait is endearing in my eyes, granting me unlimited latitude as to whether or not it is an appropriate modifier for my particular trait - ‘saying what other people think, but are afraid to say’.
Did you get that? Did you notice that entire paragraph was one sentence? You may want to read it again, because it’s a tad complicated. Not that I don’t think you have the ability to get it the first time. I’m sure you’re quite intelligent; otherwise you’d be reading the editorial page of some stuffy broadsheet instead of this column.
If you’re an English language aficionado, you may have noticed that I ended the first sentence of this riveting diatribe with a preposition [of] and you’re undoubtedly thinking you caught me in a grammatical faux pas.
Not so! That hasn’t been the case for some time now. Things have changed since those of us who are a bit long-in-the-tooth studied Ye Old King’s English.
Oh, trust me! I fought vehemently against this gross bastardization of the written word. I really did! For years, I ridiculed other writers for letting themselves slip woefully into the abyss of mundane colloquialism; writers for whom I’d had great respect. But to no avail! The conspiracy to march our language down the road to ruin pushed forward regardless of my relentless opposition.
For some time, I had a recurring nightmare in which my eighth grade English teacher, Mrs. Verzola; a woman for whom the use of proper English was paramount, walked into my office, sat down next to my desk, crossed her legs and asked, “S’up, dawg?”
“Good grief,” I screamed, horrified. “Mrs. Verzola, you’re speaking in the colloquialisms!” [that’s kind of an English major joke. It’s funny – trust me!]
I’d wake up in a cold sweat, trembling at the thought that my mentor; the single-most catalytic force in my writing career; my greatest encourager, had gone to the dark side. I was devastated!
Every time I awoke from this horrifying delusion I went straight to my office, grabbed the SRA Reading Program materials that I’d saved from Mrs. V’s eighth grade English class and started reading, hoping against hope that Mrs. V would come back and sit down next to my desk ready to administer one of her always grueling examinations; the same wonderful woman I had known in my youth; the English scholar; the persnickety purveyor of perfect prose; the one who had driven me to excel.
You can imagine my disappointment when I again awoke to find that this too was merely a dream. I’d had a dream within a dream! There was no SRA Reading Program tucked snugly away in the corner of my bookcase; no Mrs. V; no exam to prepare for – nothing!
Many years after my terrifying reveries ceased, I discovered I had split an infinitive during one of my nightmares, causing irreparable damage to my cerebral cortex, which in turn triggered delusions I still suffer with to this day.
Mrs. V had admonished me over and over again about the perils of splitting infinitives and now I was paying the price. I have to really be careful about that. [‘to really be’ is a split infinite. That was another little joke. See, you’re learning something!]
I know I’ve recounted the following story in a past column, but it bears repeating as it relates directly to the subject at hand.
A few years back, a friend had asked me to read a paper her son had penned for a creative writing class at Oliver Ames High School. I cringed as I struggled through several pages of misspellings, grammatical errors, misplaced modifiers, dangling participles, improper verb conjugation, obscure pronoun references and extremely poor sentence structure. As if that weren’t enough, the flow of the piece rivaled that of a plugged toilet.
I was hesitant to tell my friend what I thought of her sons work as I didn’t know how she would react to what was going to be rather harsh criticism. Much to my relief, as I handed the paper back to her she asked, “Have you ever read a bigger piece of crap?”
She proceeded to tell me that her son had received an A for his efforts on this disgusting piece of drivel and that she’d called the school to complain. The principal told her that in his entire career, he had never received a call from a parent complaining that a student had been unfairly graded and had received a grade higher than what he or she deserved.
The teacher who had given my friend’s son the A was spoken to but nothing was really resolved. How sad that, at least in this case, so little is expected of our children.
I think that pretty much says it all. Few seem to care about such things in this day and age. Getting by has become more important than how we get there and many seem to have quietly acquiesced to the societal norm of the acceptance of mediocrity. As a result, we have CEO’s of companies and those who hold advanced degrees who are unable to write a coherent sentence.
What have we done? At what point did we allow the purity of our native tongue to be reduced to the lowest common denominator? When did that become acceptable?
The proper use of the English language may not be dead - but it’s wheezing!
Make it a great week and have a happy, healthy and prosperous new year!