McGrath and Fleming, Part II


I, too, am stunned by the decline of literacy among the literate classes, which is far more disappointing to me than the general decline.  Kids growing up today don't have the people in the profession--whether the media, academe, or writers--we had to learn from.  After a discussion about writing essays and grammar in one of my classes back in the 90s a couple of older students came up to me.  They were both women who had come back to school to earn teaching credentials and master's degrees after rearing families.  They had grown up when English was properly taught and were dying to tell me about what they were told in the School of Education.  They said professors were telling them the rules of grammar and even spelling and pronunciation were oppressive and racist.  Forcing minority students to conform to such standards was antithetical to the mission of the enlightened teacher.  They added quite a bit more.  They only dared to bring this up because they understood I would probably appreciate it.  When I asked "But what about your textbooks," they said the textbooks said the same things as the professors.  At our next class meeting the women came with the textbooks to show me.  The textbooks read like a parody one of us would write about political correctness in academe.

Living languages grow and change, of course, but that cannot be at the cost of clarity and precision.  It seems to me we have not only lost much clarity and precision but also the nuance, subtlety, and beauty that comes with a large vocabulary.  I think most of us our age and older were fortunate enough to read great writers growing up and expanded our vocabulary page by page.  I kept a note pad with me when reading Look Homeward, Angel and Of Time and the River.  Moreover, Thomas Wolfe did not use his vocabulary to impress the reader with his erudition but to have the exact shade of meaning for any particular context.



Part of what is going on, across the board, is a war against all distinctions: rich and poor, noble and common, male and female, mine and thine, native and immigrant, straight and bent.   Grammar and vocabulary might seem--at least to the unreflective--a minor battlefield in the Great War that includes confiscatory taxation and same-sex marriage, but language shapes the way we think, how we view the world, and how we interact with our human fellows.  There is hardly anything more significant in our life--it is the poor of speech and understanding that distinguishes us from our closest relatives, the apes.

Basil L. Gildersleeve was one of America's finest scholars: an expert on Greek grammar and syntax as well as a man of letters who had a comprehensive grasp of European literatures and languages.  He was also a patriot who rode with Jeb Stuart.  Gildersleeve was fond of making fairly obscure classical and biblical allusions, and in one of his pithy notes he said something like, "It is easy to sit in the seat of the scornful of nice grammatical distinctions."  Easy, yes. but the kind of ease that Thomas Hood ridiculed when he responded that easy writing made for damned hard reading.

In their war against correctness the linguists and English teachers take it as a given that language is simply the way people speak.  It is a natural phenomenon like rock strata or moss growing on a tree.  In fact, language is the most basic human art.  Everyone practices it, but some are more or less incompetent, while others are masters.  It is much the same--though more universal--as singing or playing the guitar.  Some are masters of clear and effective speech--some can even make it beautiful--while others--most professors and preachers--are capable only of confusing and boring their listeners. Prescriptive rules are based not on what everyone or just anyone might say:  They are based on what the most effective and competent users say and write.


Dear Tom

Although I shouldn't allow it to, mispronunciation bothers me, especially because dictionaries are now "descriptive" rather than "prescriptive."  Thus, mispronunciation over time now becomes another accepted pronunciation.  Again, it's not that a particular word is mispronounced by someone lacking education but that such a word is mispronounced by someone in the media, who should know better and influences many others.  I remember Howard Cosell continually mispronouncing "acumen" as ACK-ku-men instead of a-KUmen.  When I first heard him do that, and never having heard such a pronunciation, I checked in a dictionary.  No such pronunciation.  However, after years of Cosell mispronouncing the word on national television and so many others following suit that the mispronunciation found its way into the new, descriptive dictionaries as an acceptable pronunciation.  I can immediately think of a dozen more examples of this occurring.  OK, language changes and get with the program, Mac!  Nonetheless, I keep a couple of dictionaries from the 1950s in my office as evidence that people in the communication business in more recent times pale in comparison with those from the 1920s, 30s, and 40s.

Yes, the  command of the English language in newspapers and magazines has also seen a steady decline during the last 30 years.  I suspect there are several reasons for this--fewer editors to review copy, schools of journalism are not what they once were, and affirmative action hires.

I'll note a few more examples of what I see or hear daily.  Again, I must emphasize this is not only from the average guy, which is not particularly disturbing, but from professionals such as broadcasters, writers, teachers, screenwriters, et al.  These are also things I was corrected on in my home as a kid and later learned formally. 

"between you and I"  

"I feel badly"  

"He's older than me"

Three others that come to mind--and I'm trying only to use common errors that I hear from putative professionals:

imply and infer are confused

anxious is used to mean eager

jealous is used to mean envy

One more that I heard today--and, again, this was on air by a putative professional broadcaster: "can" is used instead of "may" when permission is sought.  Hadn't the guy heard more than a few times in childhood when asking, "Can I go . . . ?" and hearing the response, "I presume you are physically able to go but you may not."
This only scratches the surface.
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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

5 Responses

  1. Harry Colin says:

    All so true. Perhaps the misuse that irritates my eyes and ears the most is the virtually certainty that national publications and broadcasters will botch the “less” and “fewer” distinction.

  2. Roger McGrath says:

    Good call, Harry! I remember being told “less sand but fewer trees” and “amount of sand but number of trees”. All these things were drummed into us when we were kids. Evidently, not so today. What’s most troubling to me, as you also note, is the very people who should set the example for the rest of us don’t know better.

  3. Raymond Olson says:

    A discussion gratifying to my editorial soul.

    The two ill usages most irksome to me of late come straight from the media: “multiple” for “many” or “several” and “legendary” for “famous”.

  4. Frank Brownlow says:

    The very idea of literacy is dead. Just think of the lay people who volunteer to read scripture in churches these days. It occurs neither to them or the people who accept their services that literacy is a requirement. Just this past Sunday we had “ear” for “heir,” and “ewe” defeated the reader entirely, who eventually produced something that sounded like “ow!”

  5. Kellen Buckles says:

    Ensure vs: Insure. “Please insure your children are here on time.” I once challenged a man at Cahill books (Thomas Cahill?) for using “insure” incorrectly. He haughtily responded with proof from a dictionary that they mean the same thing.