Views: 63

Life as We Know It: February 4, 2013

        Many years ago I worked with a Blade copy editor whose command of the English language was an inspiration to the rest of us. But his inflexibility when it came to the rules of grammar was also an occasional aggravation.

        One of his rigid rules concerned the word “hopefully.” Staff writers quickly learned that they were not to start a sentence with the word “hopefully,” as in “Hopefully good weather will return in a day or two.” Nor were they to misuse it within the sentence, as in “Good weather will hopefully return in a day or two.”

        His point was that the weather is incapable of hoping anything. The only acceptable way to say it, he believed, was to write: “It is to be hoped that good weather will return in a day or two.” That was a wordy non-starter for me, no matter what the rules of grammar might dictate.

        It was a rule I rebelled against. I understood the grammarians’ point of view, but I also recognized that people do not talk that way. Why be wordier than necessary?

        Of course, people in Ohio and the Midwest also say “I seen” instead of “I saw," which for me is the grammatical equivalent of fingernails on a blackboard. You hear it from educated people who should know better. A guy I know is a Certified Public Accountant, a whiz with numbers, but he can’t grasp the concept of “I saw.”

        Jim Norman, an English teacher, supplies another aggravation: “anyways.” There is no such word in the language, he rightly points out. I’m with Jim on this one.

        So when it comes to the language, I guess I am part modernist, part purist. Anyways, it is to be hoped that you are too.

        As you’ve probably figured out from my frequent carping on the subject, I’m a big fan of the English language when used properly. A well crafted sentence is a beautiful thing.

        You want short? “Jesus wept” pretty much says it all.

        You want long? One sentence in William Faulkner’s Southern Gothic novel, “Absalom, Absalom!” is 1,288 words long, which pales in comparison to the 4,391-word sentence attributed to Molly Bloom in James Joyce’s novel “Ulysses.”

        I can’t vouch for how well crafted either of these monsters is because I refuse to give either one a go without an oxygen tank and a nice chardonnay.

        I once marveled at an 82-word sentence assembled by a former associate on The Blade’s editorial board. With careful uses of conjunctions and punctuation, thereby providing the reader a breath of air here and there, he constructed a word journey worth taking.

        Even so, I still think it could have been boiled down to “The president is stupid.” Or “Jesus wept.”

       — Tom Walton