The most delightful piece of creative writing I have ever found is a book called Eats Shoots and Leaves, by Lynne Truss, devoted entirely to the power of punctuation. Her title without a comma simply describes a cuddly panda bear, but a comma after the first word changes it to a diner gone berserk. Obviously, there is a great difference between “I am God” and “I am, God.” Here the comma changes one statement into its opposite—one blasphemous, the other submissive to divine authority. It would never have occurred to me to attempt to hold anyone’s attention with a discussion of correct punctuation, of all subjects, for an entire book, but Truss manages quite brilliantly. Nevertheless, while her tour de force will make you cheer “Bravo!” my ranting in this chapter may make you sick. I really must warn you in advance that you will need to have a broad tolerance for whining and strong opinion to wade through the muck that follows. On the other hand, perhaps some of these observations are consistent with your view of the world also.
I suppose I can excuse my mother for saying, “I was so aggravated,” since her education came in fits and starts. She was attempting to mollify the word angry with a euphemism, but, though she was using a popular colloquialism, the word aggravate properly means to make worse. When I was in elementary school, we were taught proper English. Is this not taught even in the high schools today? Or is it just cool for young people everywhere, it seems, to say, “so me and him went to the concert”? In casual conversation perhaps such idiosyncrasies can be tolerated, but it is far worse when professional speakers we are compelled to endure know no better. How is it that the personalities we watch on the news can choose the field of broadcast journalism, where grammar, pronunciation and diction are their very stock in trade, and then sit in front of a camera projected at me polluting the airwaves with Wimbleton, Febuary, jewlery, and very unique? Did they not notice that Wimbledon is spelled with a d, February has two r’s and jewelry has the l at the end of the second syllable? And how can something be very unique? It is either unique or not—there can be no comparative degree of being the only one in existence. Did they mean to say very rare? At best they might have said, “He is unique—like everyone else.” When the weather lady tells me about “the tempature of the water over which Hurricane Babara is moving,” is she being pressured by her producer to economize on the letter r to speed things along? If a pastor wants me to stay focused on his sermon, he should not divert my thinking off the main road into a cul-de-sac with such expressions as would have went, irregardless, drownded, Holloween, nuculus, athalete and keep tract of.
Meetings at the office are the worst—well, second worst, if you count the illiterate rubbish that passes for memos sent by email. Is not “ability to write” one of the qualifications in your job description, I am wont to ask. Were syntax, possessives, spelling, usage and grammar omitted from the English courses you had in school? Did no one ever tell you there is a difference between it’s and its? that there is no such thing as her’s, their’s or theirselves? Perhaps the apostrophe should be renamed the approxtrophe, a mark that can be thrown onto the page somewhere close to the word with which it is intended to be associated, so that the reader can supply the correct meaning. When I see sugar ’n spice, I can only come up with a handful of possible omissions—is it sugar in spice, sugar on spice, sugar then spice, what? Or did you mean sugar ’n’ spice?
I feel wounded when I hear “we’re still waiting on Gail,” “we can flush out this idea,” “like I said,” “then we can try and see,” “we need to hone in on,” “we called a realator,” “it just doesn’t jive” and so on. We are waiting on Gail? How very kind of you to stand there with that towel over your arm and a tray to serve her some tea. But did you not mean we are waiting for Gail? We can flush out your idea, but perhaps you would rather that we flesh it out. When the Winston cigarettes commercial jingle some years ago was, “Tastes good … (clap, clap) … like a cigarette should,” the Reynolds tobacco company was flooded with protests for their use of like for as. Today, few would even know it was wrong. Did you not learn in your school that like is a preposition, not a correlative conjunction?—unless, of course, you are a teenager and overwork it as an interjection. Austin’s friend Ashley in high school used “like” nearly every other word, so every time she called saying, “Could you tell him that, like, Ashley called?” I left a message for him that Like Ashley had called. If we are already going to “see” what happens, what is it that we are going to “try”? Do you not mean try to see? Remind me to bring my little grinder and electric drill to the next meeting, so we can hone in on your idea—or did you mean we want to home in on it? One is a tool for a mechanic, the other a navigational principle to aim for a target. And what is a realator? I suppose a relator might be a storyteller, but should we consult one to sell us property? Or should we be talking with a real estate agent instead? Or did you really mean to say Realtor, a trademark for a member of a proprietary association, not a generic word for an agent? I think “jive” is something I saw once on a New York subway—or, excuse me, did you mean to say that something just does not jibe?