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Joan Gage Headshot

The Last Surviving Grouchy Grammar Nut

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You know how, in World War II, the Marines employed Navajo code talkers to transmit radio messages because no one but another Navajo could understand the language? Now there is fear that some of these obscure Native American languages will disappear when the last of the elderly code speakers passes on.

Well I'm 72 and I suspect that I'm the last person on earth who knows the proper usage of "lie" and "lay." Not that I would dream of correcting anyone, such as my fabulously flexible and toned Pilates teachers who say about a dozen times an hour, "Now everyone lay down on your mat with your head facing the mirror."

I've also given up on "its" and "it's." And of course there's "two, to and too," all of which are texted as "2." In fact, now that texting is ubiquitous, I suspect that all language will soon be written phonetically using numbers, symbols, emoticons and perhaps bar codes.

It's always an error in The New York Times that sends me off on a grammar rant -- and there was another one today (Thursday, March 28). In the Style Section, in a large, bold pull-quote from an article about photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith taken in the 1960s, I read: "After laying dormant for decades, a second life for photographs taken of a pair of artists on the cusp of fame." Of course, it's supposed to be: "after lying dormant..."

This "laying" was the last straw after last week, when I saw in The Times a large headline about the economic troubles of Cypress(!) even though, throughout the text of the piece, the economic troubles were ascribed to the island of Cyprus, rather than a species of tree.

In the olden days, when I was being trained in New York Times style at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism, these errors would have been caught by people called copy editors, but I can only imagine that, in this very difficult period for all print media, The Times has been forced to fire all its copy editors for economic reasons.

That thumping noise you hear is the late, lamented Times editor Ted Bernstein spinning in his grave. Once upon a time, Theodore M. Bernstein was the watchman of the venerable Great Gray Lady as well as a professor at Columbia J School. After he died in 1979, Time Magazine noted, "Theodore M. Bernstein, 74... served as the paper's prose polisher and syntax surgeon for almost five decades, authoring seven popular texts on English usage and journalism... In a witty Times house organ called 'Winners and Sinners,' the shirtsleeves vigilante caught solecists in the act."

At Columbia J School we often saw Bernstein's "Winners and Sinners" newsletter. Somewhat like the judges on American Idol, Ted Bernstein would periodically praise a brilliant headline or turn of phrase in the NYT and chide and make fun of grammatical and syntactical lapses. The "Cypress" debacle would probably have sent him into overdrive.

Three years ago, on April 14, 2010, in a post called "Michelle Obama, the Grammar Police and a Cranky Crone," I gently chided the First Lady for a lapse in grammar. Although I think I did it in a friendly way, it almost got me expelled from a women's group I belonged to, as one particularly vehement member insisted it was heartless and morally wrong to criticize her for anything except her political actions. (That blog post was also reprinted in a book called "Grammar Rants" -- and they did not mean that in a good way.)

The funny thing is, I am a huge admirer of Michelle Obama. Her photograph stands on the top of my desk. And the same day I published that post, I emailed it to her office. Evidently no one there who read it was offended, because ever since, nearly every week, I get an email from the office of the First Lady, or from the President himself asking my opinion of something, or sometimes it's just from "The White House." If the White House had been as offended as my fellow club members by my post, certainly they wouldn't have put me on their mailing list?

Anyway, I'll reprint below some of what I said about the First Lady and grammar and let you decide whether I was being "heartless." And thanks for sticking with me through this current grammar rant. I feel a lot better now.

Today [April 14, 2010] I read in all the news media about Michelle Obama's surprise visit to Haiti during her first official solo trip abroad.

I applaud her for her compassion and for bringing public attention to the devastating needs that still have to be met, especially for the Haitian children.

I'm a huge fan of Michelle's and admire her more than any first lady since, say, Eleanor Roosevelt. But I did wince when I read the statement that she made to the press about her trip. Her insight was perfect but her grammar was not.

"I think it was important for Jill and I to come now because we're at the point where the relief efforts are under way but the attention of the world starts to wane a bit, " she said.

What's wrong with that? Take out Jill and you have "I think it's important for I to come now." It's supposed to be: "It was important for Jill and ME." ....

...You don't expect perfect grammar from a baseball player (or from Bob Dylan... writer of "Lay, Lady, Lay"), but maybe you do from a First Lady who's a lawyer, educated at Princeton and Harvard.

Kids acquire an ear for correct grammar by hearing it spoken by the adults around them; their parents and their role models. But now that young people mainly communicate by texting in a phonetic code, both spelling and grammar are becoming as antiquated as the Model T.

It's great that Michelle Obama is encouraging kids to eat smart and get out there and exercise, but let's encourage them to mind their P's and Q's and their prepositions, nouns, verbs and grammar as well.