It’s time to make a wee confession: I drive my wife crazy with the language stuff. It’s OK around other people — I manage to suppress all comments and face-making in public (mostly). However, at home it seems to go differently.
I assume that you are somewhat the same way. After all, you’re not likely to read a language column unless you care about language more than the ordinary person does. Maybe you can relate to this.
Yesterday I happened to glance at a check that my wife had just written. She saw the glance and said, “What?” I replied that all was fine. Evidently, there was an infinitesimal catch in my voice. A teeny tone thing that gave me away.
“What’s wrong with it?”
“Hmmm, then what would you have done differently?
“Well … .”
Then I explained that when you write a check, you want to hyphenate numbers with “ty” in the first part (forty-one, twenty-four, etc.). She had written, simply, “thirty two.” After my explanation, she kindly suggested that a future column of mine might look at how an excessive degree of language awareness can, well, how to put this … it can drive a spouse CRAZY!
Let me quote British author Lynne Truss in “Eats, Shoots & Leaves” as she talks about us language sticklers: “In short, we are unattractive know-all obsessives who get things out of proportion and are in continual peril of being disowned by our exasperated families.”
We know that our desire for correct punctuation, spelling and usage is based on the fact that language is the building block of thought, of communication. We’re not seeking precision for the sake of precision, you and I. Certainly not, nope, nuh-uh, not us. We’re seeking correctness strictly to avoid any possible misunderstandings, doncha know.
It’s all a matter of balance, isn’t it? The people who fear talking to us (remember — you’re right here with me on this), fear writing to us, simply because they assume that their language will be riddled with embarrassing errors — they and all friends and relatives who might somehow occasionally think you and I are too aware of language … all of those people are still quick as a cobra when they need help, hmmm? They’re more than willing to say, “What’s the rule for commas and quotation marks?” Or “Is it ‘different than’ or ‘different from’?”
They want to have their cake and their cookies, too. They want us to stifle our normal inclination to react slightly to language errors (you know — our barely perceptible eye-closing, head-shaking, hands-on-mouth-to-prevent-screaming gestures) in front of them, but they want us on call when they need us!
At least I’m not alone. Here’s what Reader Catherine says: “You can't know, until now of course, how much I enjoy your column and look forward to it each month. You've hit so many topics that I've seethed about for years. My grown kids (10, count ’em) tease about my being the grammar police, but I don't mind; those nuns in elementary school drummed it into my head, all right. … (Incidentally, does continual repetition really make ‘alright’ all right???)”
Catherine, I am happy to report that “alright” is still considered nonstandard, even though it has become increasingly commonplace since it first appeared (in the 19th century). What’s more important is that you’re right there with me on the GPF (the revered Grammar Police Force). Also, thanks for raising another important point when you write this: “I confess to making a few gaffes myself … I am an 83-year-old who’s a long time out of class. [But] before I conclude, please attack the poor use of the verbs ‘lie’ and ‘lay.’ The nuns drilled, ‘lie, lay, lain’ if the subject, even inanimate, is doing the action; and, if you could substitute ‘to put or place,’ use ‘lay, laid, laid.’ Is my memory of this now obsolete? … How many times do we hear someone was ‘laying on the couch’?”
Right you are, Catherine. If you put an object down, you lay it someplace. If you put yourself down, as in assuming a reclining position, then you lie somewhere — if you’re lucky, someplace comfortable. You lie on the couch, you lay the book on the desk, you have lain on the bed a long time, you have laid the plates on the table.
It’s not easy being a stickler, and that’s no lie.