Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Oh Nurse, like, more meds

Now I understand why young people think we old people are crotchety. It’s because old people get that way from hearing young people suck all intelligence and nuance and grace from the English language.

I assume it happens in other languages and countries as well, thus explaining the global rise of crotchety-osity.

Several weeks ago I was in Washington, D.C., and a teenaged girl plopped down on a chair next to me, placing both of her pink-sneakered feet directly onto the upholstered furniture as she made a cell-phone call that opened with, “Like, where are you?” I wanted to bolt.

“Are you, like, still at the mall? Oh. My. God. Like, I’m still here, and it’s like sooooo boring.” I wanted to scream.

“There’s like, nothing to do.” Let me point out that we were in the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. Unfortunately, the museum had no, like, video games.

She went on: “Waitwaitwait listen. Like my cousin? Rachel? Like she was here last year? And, like, she got so bored? That they, like, had to practically put her in like an institution?” I left.

My wife insists that all generations after ours will speak with the question inflection (where sentences? and phrases? all end with an upturn? of the voice?) and with “like” sprinkled throughout all speech. I say put me in a retirement home now. She says it won’t help — that all staff members will speak that way from this point forward. I say I’ll need good medications.

Yes, I have complained to you about both of those uses in the past. However, the problem seems to be spreading. Perhaps you, dear readers, need to be even more conscientious about confronting the guilty parties and hollering “Stop it!” very loudly, just to raise language awareness.

Admittedly, even those of us who avoid the question inflection and the like-like irritants still make our share of silly mistakes. Let me offer you what might be an error you’ve not considered before. Have you ever mentioned your hot water heater to anyone? Do you see the error?

Why would you spend money for a machine that would heat hot water? If the water’s already hot, you’re done. Pass the soap.

In fact, water heaters (the term you’ll want to use, I hope) heat water that is not hot. Most of the time, that underground water is pretty cool when the heating starts. In that case, if “water heater” just isn’t enough for you, you might want to go with “cold water heater.” People will think you’re bonkers, but it might help you avoid saying “hot water heater.”

Next we turn to a description that you yourself must have used. I owe an awareness of it to my friend and sociology professor Paul Leslie, who pointed out to me some years ago that talking about “the real world” is usually a specious use. Putting the MTV reality series “The Real World” aside, most of the time we refer to “the real world,” we’re saying that the current living conditions are not truly the real world.

Example: “You think you have it bad as a college sophomore — just wait until you have to function in the real world.” In fact, most of the time we use that phrase, we’re talking to or about students, and usually they’re in college. Not always, but usually.

The life of a young person, whether in high school or in college, is the real world for them at that time. Deadlines are real; tests and exams are real; relationships are intense and very real. So are all the daily challenges of food and laundry and beer (oops). The realities of a young adult might not be the same as those of an older adult, but they are no less real.

Think of it this way: Even if you’ve said something about a young adult having it easier now than in the real world, I doubt that you’d turn to a 9-year-old and say, “Yeah, you think that broken bike is serious? Wait till you get in the real world!”

I know I’d never do that, and here’s why. The wee one, tears flowing down his or her scrunched-up little face, would likely say: “Um, like, my bike? That’s, like, broken? Well, um, it, like, is the real world to me.”


Right red is good to go

I knew I was Back South when the doctor looked in my mouth. I had spent 18 years Way Up North (sounds like Alaska; it was Omaha), and we had just moved back to the South, to North Carolina. My throat was killing me, so I went to a doctor.

After he inserted the standard popsicle stick and shone his little burglar’s flashlight beam into my mouth, he uttered the words that brought me back to my roots: “Yup, it looks right red.”

I had lived Way Up North for so long that I was unsure at first, and with my mouth still agape I gurgled a “Huh?” back at him. The repetition confirmed that he had not, in fact, said it was “bright red” or “quite red,” but “right red.” I knew better than to wonder if there is a wrong red. I knew I was home.

Many generous readers have sent me some of their own favorite Southernisms. There are too many to include them all here, but I would like to mention a few. Reader Nelda wrote me that she had spent a good amount of time living in my hometown in Texas: “It took some adjusting when I moved to Houston and found out that when a person leaned too far back in his chair, he might pitch ofen the porch or even tump out into the yard.”

Yes, Nelda, yes! I never use “ofen” myself, but I admit to saying “tump” freely my whole life. It takes a few years for some transplants from Way Up North to take to the use of “tump” (not to mention to take to the phrase “take to”), but it is, many admit, worth the effort. Even my wife has learned our ways and now knows that things are liken (yes, liken) to get tumped, or even tumped over. These days she herself can be heard to say, “Will you please tump over that bowl to get the water out?”

Obviously the software I’m using to write this does not recognize the wonderfulness of “tump.” It gives a red jagged warning underline, and it suggests that what I REALLY want to say is “tamp, thump, trump, stump or dump.” Nuh-uh.

Reader Watts tells about hearing “Hit’s a-comin’ up a storm,” whereas Reader Harry reports a similar phrase with “come a cloud,” meaning a large thunderstorm. In Houston, the worst possible weather news, other than hurricanes from the Gulf, was usually stated simply as, “a nor’easter’s comin’.”

Reader Harry also sent me a phrase from his Drives-Me-Crazy collection. He says this: “In giving directions, people often say to go to the third red light and turn left instead saying to go to the third traffic light. When I hear this expression, I am wont to ask, what if the light is green? I have heard this only in the South.”

Gosh. I guess if that traffic light is green, you keep going until you hit a third red one. Ha. Speaking of only in the South, until I moved to North Carolina in 1986, I had never heard “Good to go.” Now, of course, it’s everywhere. It has a nice folksy sound to it, and it somehow expresses more than merely saying one is “ready.”

Readers Randal and Kimberly added a footnote to my mention of the Southern pronunciation of “Wal-Mart” as “Wal-Mark.” They say: “Recently you spoke about ‘Wal-Mark.’ Around here, people go to the Wal-Mart, the Food Lion.” They’re right about that “the.” I do hear “You can get it at the Wal-Mark.” Sometimes it’s even plural, as in “the Wal-Marks.”

Remember Reader Watts who told us hit was comin’ up a storm? He also wrote me about this one: — “My battrey's done died on me!” Well, that’s a cryin’ shame right there. Or, as my grandmother would have put it, “Well, foot.”

I need to tell you and Watts that yesterday a Summerfield woman told me that the rain on her farm this summer “put a hurtin’ on that crick yonder.” I looked, and sure ‘nuff, that crick done run so hard it were plumb tuckered out. It’s calmed down some, but it won’t never be the same.

Finally, this morning a nice woman said to me: “Are you the guy what writes that column in the paper?” Naturally, I gave the only appropriate response: “Are you the one what reads it?”


To read well, well, read

My normal advice to young (and not-young) people who want to become better writers is this: Read. Read a lot. The same advice holds for those who want to become better readers — read.

Reading copiously can give you great pleasure, can expand your perspective of the world and can shed light on how your own life relates to that of others. It also can give you an appreciation of language — its style, its powers, its versatility and beauty.

However, keep in mind that words and punctuation in print sometimes … how can I put this nicely? Um, they’re wrong. Yep — books and magazines (even newspapers, on occasion, can you believe it?) make errors. So don’t simply assume that everything in print is correct. Let’s look at some recent examples and play a wee game at the same time. I’ll give you some excerpts from recent newspapers and magazines, and you see if you can spot (and correct!) the errors. To make it more interesting, not all of these examples will have mistakes. Ready?

(1) “The chart below illustrates the number of residents over the age of 25, who are high school graduates and those who have a bachelor’s degree or higher.”
(2) “Pam takes us back in time — with gorgeous photos by her husband Mike — for a leisurely day on the grounds.”
(3) “There’s glacial deposits on top.”
(4) “She was beautiful, the penultimate embodiment of sensuality.”
(5) “[The company called] PrideStaff, has 39 offices.”
(6) “My father left; Mother went too.”

How do you think you did? Was it easy? Let’s look first at the comma challenges, shall we? The first excerpt displays the mistake that many writers make: Being unsure about when to use a comma, they buy a basket of them and then sprinkle them over the paper, letting them fall wherever the breeze blows. See that comma after “25”? Kill it. Now look at #5. There is no reason in the WORLD for the comma in that sentence, except that the wind blew one there.

Next we’ll examine #3. “There’s” means “There is.” Would you say, “There is deposits on top”? I didn’t think so. Number 4 is easy, too. The speaker meant to say that she is the quintessential embodiment. “Penultimate” means next to last.

Now let’s take a deep breath and attack #2. You might have some trouble with this one. Husband Mike is the problem. So many people write about “his wife Kathy” or “her husband Jeff.” Wrong. Try to keep this in mind: If you have more than one of something, then no comma is the correct way to go. But we don’t normally have more than one spouse at a time, do we?

Let’s say you have three sisters — Abby, Betsy and Carla. In that case, it would be correct to write about your sister Abby, your sister Betsy or even your wonderful sister Carla. But here’s the tough part: If you have only one of something — spouses, children, dogs, cats — set it off with commas. Say “His wife, Kathy, left.” Two dogs? “This is my dog Fido.” One dog? “This is my dog, Fang.” It’s not easy, is it? But now you know.

Number 6 has no mistakes. Capitalize Mother and Father as names; lowercase my mother and your father.

Turn to your favorite style guide to find the right way to write, but simply READ to develop a love of language. Start at an early age and read forever.

I returned some library books today at a branch that has a little conveyor belt outside the door. You put your books on it, chided by a harsh recording that commands, “Place the books on the belt ONE AT A TIME!!” I always feel chastised. Anyway, ahead of me were a woman with her two small girls, around the ages of 5 and 9.

The 9-year-old was dutifully placing the books on the moving belt (ONE AT A TIME!), and when she got to the last book she took a slight beat — just enough for her mom and sister to turn and start walking away.

Then, left basically alone, the girl performed one small movement with the final book that I was just able to see. It was a tiny gesture, but extraordinary. She looked at that book’s cover, almost longingly, and right before placing it on the belt, she kissed it.

Ah, I thought, there’s hope.