What happened to grammar?


Published: Thursday, January 2, 2003 at 8:56 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 2, 2003 at 8:56 a.m.

Do you ever wonder what happened to all those little old ladies who pounded grammar into our heads -- all that stuff about subjects, predicates, and objects, along with subjective and objective pronouns, transitive and intransitive verbs, and the like. What happened also to their grammarian counterparts who worked diligently as copy editors on every newspaper and magazine in America?

They are all dead, you say? Too bad. Some of the smartest people I have ever known were mothers, grammar teachers, and copy editors.

Have they been replaced? Well, no. Not unless you allow for computers -- spell and grammar checks -- or for journalism-school grads with style manuals.

I am reminded of my years in New York City. Our copy editor was an older man who (so he said) belonged to a club whose members read every line every day in the New York Times. Their mission: to find a grammatical error. As we all know, the Times once had extraordinarily high literacy standards. But that was then.

I once told a neighbor about this club, saying I believed that anyone finding an error in the Times was rewarded with free drinks at the next club meeting. To this she responded: "It's a good thing there's no such club reading the Gainesville Sun. The members would be drunk all the time."

I remember a college thesis book that postulated: All old men, as they approach the end, believe the world is going to hell in a hand basket. I'll admit that this philosophy fits me. I truly believe that all those beautiful rules of grammar the little old ladies drilled into me have "slud" down the chute.

When the last lady left -- quit in a huff, retired, or died -- grammar went to hell in that hand basket. Is there a teacher alive today who believes that a split infinitive is a sign of sloppy writing? If so, let's form a club. I'm in the book.

Don't try to count the split infinitives in the Gainesville Sun. That's like shooting fish in a rain barrel. Does the Times now suffer from this indignity? You bet. Even George Will splits infinitives. No little old lady reads behind him any more.

The newspapers have invented new rules for creating possessive singular nouns. Too bad. All one needs to do is add 's no matter the consonant it follows. Thus, a careful author will write, "Burns's poems," "Harris's dust," etc. (See: Page 1, Strunk and Whyte, a bible among old writers.)

Much confusion abounds in this arena, and a reader can get the impression that anything goes. Even computers seem at odds with me, but I press on. I recently saw something written on the Fox TV News screen that used its' as a possessive pronoun. Now that is ignorant. The possessive pronoun its and all its cousins have been around a long time, and we were once well-schooled on them.

Also please, do not use objective pronouns--me, us, him, her, whom, or them -- as subjects. Example: "Them's pigs." Likewise and vice versa. Use no subjective pronouns in objective slots. Consider: "Just between you and I."

I am in a snit over "raised" or "reared" when speaking about bringing up children. The Gainesville Sun recently reported that somebody had been "reared" somewhere, and I inquired with the reporter. She informed me that the newsroom style manual says animals are "raised" and people are "reared."

My mother would have been very upset to hear that. In her mind, the most ignorant of ignoramuses were people of our own race and ethnic origin. Unschooled and living in Arkansas under poverty worse than ours, those poor souls drew mamma's harshest scorn. She was a demon about getting her children educated, and she believed all parents should be so motivated. Bragging, she might of said, "No child of mine will ever say, 'I's reared down the road a piece'."

It seems, however, that the Arkansas Scots-Irish have ascended to controlling positions everywhere, including the presidency, our newspaper editors, and in those non-ivy-covered halls where our computers are pre-programmed.

My dictionary tells me that in 1976 eighty-two percent of its learned Usage Panel preferred "raised" over "reared" on the matter of bringing up children. Then, to my utter confusion, the same book reveals that the verb "raise" in this context is "almost exclusively transitive."

This means it's okay to say, "My parents raised me in Oklahoma," but "I was raised in Oklahoma" is not okay. I guess that's why my computer rejects the latter, but accepts "I was reared in Oklahoma."

I would never (ever) write that I was "reared" anywhere.

Why? Because my 122 year-old mother is constantly looking over my shoulder.

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