Sunday, January 20, 2008

Readers are language sticklers, too

I’ll say it again: The readers of this column are, by definition, bright and wonderful. (That means you. Congratulations.) They also occasionally email me to ask if I have not, in fact, broken one of my own language rules. Sometimes they gleefully claim that I have erred. Ouch, babe.

Of course, the rules I praise are not mine; they’re yours and mine. And so far the claims have only been about my uses of language that would be, I readily admit, ill advised for formal writing. However, any column that includes expressions such as “Ouch, babe” is not an example of formal writing.

That’s why I told my wonderful brother, when he questioned it, that my ending a sentence with a preposition is OK in this informal context. And so is beginning a sentence with “And.”

One phrase I used shook up Reader Jane, who wrote: “As a retired English teacher, I enjoy your column immensely. I often hope my ‘educated’ acquaintances read it as well, since I find myself buttoning my lips to squelch the urge to correct them. Please tell me, however, that the closing paragraph of today's [Nov. 18] column is a trick question! ‘I'm done for now’ is one of my pet peeves. I do correct my grandchildren by responding, ‘So I guess you are FINISHED cooking!’”

Naturally, I encourage anyone with a pet peeve to pursue its proper use relentlessly. But this complaint is subject to context, in that “done” does mean “finished” in informal uses. (I won’t tell your grandchildren.) Again, some of the strict rules for formal writing don’t have to be in play for informal uses.

Reader Linda wrote this: “When I was in school, we were taught that the proper way to read ‘125’ was ‘one hundred twenty-five,’ not ‘one hundred AND twenty-five,’ which is what often assaults my ears. Now I know, in the overall scheme of things, this is unimportant. But I, too, am a stickler for good spelling, punctuation and grammar, and while I know that all of this is in a continual state of flux, I suspect that much of what is passed off as ‘modern’ is simply laziness or carelessness on the part of the speaker/writer.”

Golly, Linda, that “state of flux” statement could fill several whole columns, with you and me on one side and linguists — true scholars — on t’other. I’ll table that discussion for a while. As for the (incorrect, according to you) “and” in pronouncing numbers exceeding 100, I wish we had an absolutely simple answer to that. Wait a minute, WAIT a minute — that’s what this column is for. (Do you like that sentence with a preposition at the end?) I’m here to give clear-cut dicta. So here we go: I’m with you. Say “125” with no “and,” and tell Jane’s grandchildren to do the same.

This arrived from Reader Bud: “I have not seen this addressed by anyone and have grown very distressed over the years as its usage has seemed to grow to include virtually everyone except me and possibly you. I am referring to ‘take’ and ‘bring.’ When I was growing up, a correct sentence would have been, ‘I am taking my mother to the doctor.’ Now, the word ‘take’ has completely disappeared from this usage. Now it's, ‘I have to bring my son to school each day.’ I see this almost daily, and nobody but me seems to be bothered by it! That is why I'm hoping you will be too, or if you aren't, could you explain to me what is going on?”

Let’s not fool around here, Bud. Let’s cut to the end — I agree with you. Take that to the bank. (Don’t bring it; take it.) Rule of thumb: Take it there, bring it here.

In the near future, I’d like to discuss the language used by young people. Are there any readers of this column under 30? I don’t think so, but I’d love to be wrong. If you’re 30 or younger, please drop me an email. Even if you’re reading this for a class assignment, I’d like to know. You don’t have to write a letter; just tell me that you’re under 30.

Just for a smile, let me close with what my young nephew Steve emailed me recently. He saw this sign posted in his D.C. condo complex: “We are aware of the garage door staying in the up position. Bare with us.” Ouch, babe.