Lange: Proper English

Sep 19, 2014

My first month in secondary school was an English language boot camp. The drill instructor was Thomas Donovan; we still call him TD. He assigned essays due each Monday morning at eight when he entered the classroom.

They were returned Wednesday, with comments in red pencil. Misspellings were infractions. The offending sentence had to be rewritten with the word spelled correctly, and the word written ten times. More troublesome was a rule infraction. You looked up the rule, wrote it out, and then rewrote the sentence properly. At the end of the essay, TD wrote a general comment. His reaction to one of my papers was a cartoon of a manure fork in a pile of ordure, with a fly buzzing in the air above. It implied I was a bit short of facts and unjustifiably long on conclusions. Rewrite required.

“If you don’t master the instrument,” he said, “you can’t play the music. And until you master the music, you can’t improvise on it.” So: If we mastered English, we could manipulate it. This meant we could also abuse it. But we also could be manipulated by it.

His job was to insist on our mastery of the language – the largest, most expressive, and most dynamic of all modern tongues. But it’s in that one word, “dynamic,” that a conundrum lies. If English is constantly changing, of what use are ancient rules? Isn’t insistence on “proper” usage simply the snobbery of educated and disconnected intellectuals?

Well, yes and no. As far as I know, nobody’s repealed the law that the subject and verb in a sentence must agree; but it would be pleasant to think that when they don’t, the writer did it that way on purpose – most likely not the case. Other usages have run away from us, as well. Television, for example, is a medium of communication. But “medium” has disappeared from current English, except as a dress or shirt size, and “media,” its plural, is now used as a singular. I can stand that, as long as I think the user knows the difference.

“Healthful” has disappeared from America, though its definition is clear. If you ate a “healthy” lunch, it would still be alive and wriggling. And in this brave new world of SpellCheck, apostrophes pepper the Internet like stray bullets. A few misspellings, misplaced apostrophes, and a wrong “your” can suck all the juice out of an argument.

Not that anybody’s perfect. We all foul up. Even Itzhak Perlman and Yo Yo Ma hit clinkers now and then. But when contributors to Internet blogs – anonymous behind avatars and excited by others’ contrary opinions – trample all over punctuation, spelling, and protocols of evidence, you’ve got to regret they had no TD to hold their feet to the fire; that nobody insisted effectively on the rules of composition; that perhaps – worst of all – even their teachers didn’t know the difference, or care.

This is Willem Lange in Montpelier, and I gotta get back to work.