Life As We Know It: December 30, 2013

     I remember taking a spelling test in high school a long time ago that included the word “meteorology.” I botched it badly, and the teacher took great delight in telling the class “that’s the worst spell of weather I’ve ever seen.” Obviously he’d been hoping somebody would mess up so he could drop his joke on us. I never misspelled it again.

      But I remembered the incident recently when I was struck by how much misspelling, how many grammatical mistakes, how much dumbing down has compromised a beautiful language.

      Sometimes the language is used properly, but with unintended results.

     I remember the sign I saw a few years ago that said: “Fang’s Acupuncture.“ Or this one in a laundromat in Alameda, Calif.: “Clothes Must Be Removed When Finished.” Or this one in a Blade ad some years back: “Blowout Sale on All Tires!” Grammatically all three are fine and spelled correctly. I just find them hilarious even though the irony, I suspect, was unintended.

     I saw a sign reading “Boat Wash” at a marina once and that struck me as funny, too. I mean, would you blow-dry an airplane?

     Here’s one I spotted at a shopping mall in Michigan: “Ears Peirced While You Wait.” That one hit the daily double. Not only was pierced spelled wrong, I’m waiting to hear how one could get his or her ears pierced any other way than by having a seat right there in the shop.

     I was tempted to walk in and ask if it would be okay to leave my ears for about an hour while I do some other shopping. I decided against it, however, because the idea of piercing my body with foreign objects really creeps me out.

     I’m not talking about an intimate understanding of the nuances of the pluperfect subjunctive; I’m just talking about basic English usage. I used to teach college journalism courses at night, and it was depressing to discover how many of the students wrote so poorly and how ill prepared they were for the demands of higher education.

     Does anybody teach grammar any more? Do high school students know how to diagram a sentence? Do they even know what the term means?

     What a challenge our language presents to foreigners. There is no pine in a pineapple. No apple either. You won’t find ham in a hamburger. Boxing rings are square. We park on a driveway and drive on a parkway. We recite at a play and play at a recital. Yet many folks for whom English is a second language understand it better than we do.

     Several years ago I wrote about the most frequent grammatical errors I encountered as a newspaper editor, particularly those that originated with contributors to our Blade Readers Forum. Abuse of the language, it seemed to me, had become an epidemic. Today, it appears little has changed.

     However, I am not arbitrary about this stuff. To change the old Rolling Stones song, “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” to “I Cannot Get Any Satisfaction” might have been grammatically prudent but it would have also been musically stupid. Plus, I think Star Trek had it right with its line: “to boldly go where no man has gone before.” To boldly go is a split infinitive, supposedly a grammatical no-no. But Captain Kirk, commander of the starship USS Enterprise, liked it, and so do I.

     Sometimes you just have to boldly go where your English teacher would rather you didn’t.

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