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The Rantings of a Curmudgeon
By Ron Jones

     Regular readers of Chesapeake Style will recall an earlier article about the poor signage on Virginia highways. This curmudgeon has been, among other professions, an English teacher. Helping my students in middle and high schools to learn proper grammar was of utmost importance to me. I suppose today for me it is a pet peeve.

     Much to my joy, as my eldest child was moving through high school, she proudly brought her writing projects to me after they had been graded. They were all marked with a large letter A or A+ written in bold red marker. However, when I read the first page I almost screamed. There were words standing alone as complete thoughts in and of themselves. I learned quickly that it was conversational writing. No doubt she had satisfied the teacher’s request in the assignment. Yet for me as a former English teacher, the work was a non-starter.

     “So?”, “Well!”, “Fine.”, and the like did not represent for me appropriate grammatical expression for a ninth grade student. Maybe she was well enough advanced in her grasp of proper grammar to handle such work, but for this father, interested in his daughter developing the ability to demonstrate she can write readable English in the work place, it was troubling.

     I must tell you that she is now 36 and I haven’t seen the first novel she has written. I expressed my displeasure back then and today, when I read her e-mails, I can understand exactly what she is telling me. Ah, my mission has been accomplished.

     Have you noticed what has crept into our language in recent years? People obviously have either not learned or have forgotten about subjects and objects. It is not uncommon to hear persons, entrusted by various news and sports departments, and especially the talk shows on networks telling us what they want us to know through their ruinous usage of the English language. For example, “When the coach interviewed my wife and I, we knew our son would be signed by the team. It was a surprise for Terri and I.” or “Charlotte has friends named Hal and Carol. She called he and she to come at 7 p.m. for dinner.” What happened to the understanding that transitive verbs and prepositions require an objective personal pronoun? These mistakes are as common as blue jeans these days. They are ubiquitous in our society.

     Who’s to blame here? Maybe this is a case of the chicken or the egg. Have the schools done a poor job of teaching the concept of personal pronoun usage or have the speakers forgotten? Add to that the fact that nearly everyone watches television, busily broadcasting such perpetual mistakes, and we have the recipe for perpetuating the errors.

     Another mistake is the use of certain prepositions. It is likely a cultural situation, but on the Northern Neck one can hear people using the word “into” in an inappropriate manner. I even heard it improperly used on television recently. An example of this came in a conversation with a friend. He said he was released from a job for which he had been hired for an extended time to inspect houses. He was dismayed at the sudden change of fortune. His complaint was, “It was a poor way for a contract to be handled into.” There are plenty of other examples. Keep listening for them.

     Adverbs are also sadly misused and abused. The typical error is the use of an adjective to modify a verb when an adverb is needed. A quick example is “Be sure to eat healthy.” The proper grammatical use here should be “eat healthily”. I’m sure you can think of others.

     One final thought on which you may ponder. How do you activate the light switches in your home? Again, this may be a cultural or even a regional situation, but I “turn on” the light. Locally, I hear people say “cut on” the light. Other folks “switch on “ the light. I suppose the latter is most appropriate. However, as a child growing up in a rural community, I encountered in older homes light switches equipped with winged nut devices with which one literally “turned on” the light. 

     When my father went off to World War II, he moved my mother and me into a home without electricity. The landlord agreed to have the house wired. No wall switches were provided. Every light was fitted with a switch that had to be pulled with a chain and a string. In my room the line ran from the light over to the head of my bed and the string was tied to the bedpost. As a result, I had to “pull on” the light, yet we never said that. We always “turned on “ the light. Some habits die slowly.

     I hope we are not becoming desensitized to the kinds of errors which have crept into our language. Call me a purist, but it seems worth the effort to point out such mistakes to those who at least in our family. 

© 2003 Ron Jones. All Rights Reserved. 
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