Grammar Nazis and Les Macramés

Posted on January 21, 2014
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I am an aficionado of, not an expert in, English grammar, vocabulary, punctuation and good writing. As such, I cringe at so much of the writing in today’s print media. It irritates me when journalists and editors don’t know how to conjugate lie, lay and lie or know that they are three different verbs. I also enjoy discussing, on Facebook and, among like minded friends, examples of the misuse of words like flout and flaunt and whether “feel badly” or “feel bad,” is correct.

Some years ago, I realized that such discussions appear pompous and insulting to many people who come across them. I think many of us are tempted to show off our knowledge when we have a special skill, wealth of experiences or acquisitions.

Most of us have learned that no one really wants to hear about what marvellous trips you are having. We soon tire of hearing about the latest personal bests or victories of runners and other athletes.

I do enjoy having a reasonably good knowledge of the language but I also realize that I am far from a real expert. Many of the odd things I do know come from an addiction to trivia. For example, in an elementary school language text book, I noticed a hyphen at the beginning of a line in the book. I pointed out the error to my teacher, She explained that, when a pair of hyphenated words are broken by a turn, the hyphen goes at the beginning of the next line. I’ve never seen or heard any reference to that in the 60 years or so since then. If it is true, it seems irrelevant now that most computer word processing programs don’t hyphenate because they don’t do line breaks.

I’m also old enough to reject some modernizations. “Time” magazine announced many years ago now that it would no use “an” before words beginning with the letter “h” when the emphasis was not on the first syllable of the word or the “h” was silent. Under the old rule, you would write or say “a history,” but you would say “an hospitable person” or “an honorary degree”.

Added to that, I would rebel against some journalistic style books or regional differences. If I understand it correctly, American grammar requires any sentence including a quote to end with the quotation mark. Brits would put the quotation marks before a period if the quotation was a question within a question or a question mark if the quotation was a statement within a question.

British examples are:

Who said, “Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely”?

He asked, “Did Lord Northcliffe say that?”.

An American example would be:

Who said “Absolute power corrupts absolutely?”

I’m not sure that is true but a Canadian editor living and working in Germany explained it to me that way.

Neither am I sure I punctuated the above statement of examples properly. I did not want to express the examples as quotes within quotes and drown you in single and double quotation marks so I used the colon.

At least I know the question if not the answer.

All any

of the above means is that I have an above average command of the language. It does not mean I am smarter or better educated than anyone else.

On my best day, night actually, I can find the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper and the North Star.

I cannot play any musical instrument and have never had an understanding of keys. If you want to move up a key or down a key why don’t you just start up or down a letter on the scale? What’s all this stuff about sharps and flats?

I have absolutely no knowledge or abilities with regard to the internal combustion engine.

I am amazed when anyone passes a statistics course.

I know many people who could never do the “New York Times” weekend crossword puzzle but who can take their boats out to sea in the middle of the night and find where to anchor lobster traps. I’d be lucky to find my way back much less find a lobster.

I am an encyclopedia of ignorance. An Acadian I knew once told me they called the academics who ran a newspaper that kept telling Acadians how miserable they should be, “Les Macrames,”. It meant that the closest thing to a  practical skill  many academics and philosophers could master would be to make decorative crafts with rope.

Abraham Maslov, developer of the hierarchy of needs, said that, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, after awhile everything begins to look like a nail”.

Thus politicians tend to think that the solution to every challenge is to pass a law. Lawyers thing it is to sue. Bureaucrats think it is to fund a program. Editors think it is to spread the news. Columnists and editorialists think it is to bless the public with our opinions and advice.

I realized some years ago that I was falling prey to that last and called it the SRPA syndrome. SRPA stands for self-righteous, pompous asshole.

Fortunately family and friends regular organize an intervention but it is an ongoing battle.

An upside to being a newspaper person is that I was exposed to so many issues and areas of expertise that I learned that my skills were a tiny item in the world. I learned to love the awe I feel at the skills of others.

So, if you see or hear me discussing language issues, please remember that I might criticize people who should know better because of their vocation but I don’t delude myself for a second that everyone doesn’t have specialties I cannot dream of.

On we go!                                                                                                                                                                                 DAC



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