A Cry in the Wilderness

Language is as dynamic as the culture of which it is a part. On the one hand, it is enriched by new words, phrases, and concepts associated with cultural activity as diverse as technology, literature, and notable events. On the other hand, language is subject to denigration at its grammatical level. A typical excuse to ignore any rule of grammar is that languages are filled with inconsistencies, so why bother being ‘correct.’ This raises the question: Is there really any need for grammar?

You bet there is. By that, I don’t mean unwavering dedication to inviolate grammatical rules. But, since language is our major tool for communicating concrete and abstract concepts, consistent standards of language should be maintained as much as possible, including irregular verbs and well-established idiomatic quirks. Italians live with the double negative, ‘I don’t know nothing.’ Their idiom is grammatically ‘correct’ for them. It is anathema for us. It also happens that the English ‘I don’t know anything’ is consistent with logic. Italians know that, but it is centuries too late for them to correct their ancient idiom. The same is true for our imbedded idioms, however irrational some of them seem out of context.

But denigration of language is another matter. Consider the following:

  •  He is so fun.

If that sentence hurts your ears, there’s good reason for the pain. Replace fun with house and we have, ‘It is so house.’ Fun is an abstract noun that is never preceded by a. We can speak of ‘a house,’ but not of ‘a fun.’ It is a word that requires modification, as in ‘We had fun.’ It is used as an adjective only at the colloquial level, as in ‘a fun movie.’ I am neither nitpicking nor am I alone in objecting to the recent popular ‘reclassification’ of that word.

  • What went down?

Why replace “What happened?” with an awkward colloquial expression.

  • She went missing last week.

Translation: She’s been missing for a week.

Went missing’(!). We go to lots of places- – -‘missing’ is not one of them. ‘She went missing’ is an expression widely used by newscasters reporting missing persons (a rather frequent news item). I’m afraid that this abomination has already infected the general populace and is here to stay.

  • He goes, ‘I have an issue.’

Translation: He said, ‘I have a problem.’

I remember when the verbs ‘to go’ and ‘to say’ had separate meanings. The same was true of the words issue and problem. These words were not interchangeable. Recently, the fine distinction between them has been severely blurred.

  • We’re back after a commercial.

Translation: We’ll be back after a commercial.

This last example is symptomatic of a significant denigration of English grammar. Old English didn’t have a future tense. The future tense was created by combining shall, will, and forms of do, have, and be. Auxiliary verbs are combined with main verbs to convey many shades of time. For example, will or shall combined with forms of other verbs provide us with time frames as precise as, ‘I will have had dinner before you arrive.’ (Putting aside the interesting but mainly archaic rules about whether will or shall is the proper word to use in different circumstances, will is by far the more commonly used.) Of course the contraction (we’ll) makes those subtleties totally irrelevant. In any case, I’m still waiting to hear someone say, ‘We’ll be back after a commercial.’

I suspect that ‘We’re back’ instead of ‘We’ll be back’ is intended to create an illusion of nonstop action, a concession to restless audiences. By this time, most listeners unquestioningly accept a corrupted tense when they hear phrases like, ‘The President is in London for two weeks’ when the reality is that the President is expected to be in London for two weeks beginning a day after the newscast.

Before television, changes in the spoken word were relatively gradual. Then, about fifteen years ago, I was shocked by an instant change. I was watching a weather report delivered by a new ‘weatherman.’ Forecasting the weather a week in advance, he said, “Tomorrow it’s raining. Thursday, it’s turning colder. The weekend is fair and cold.” Throughout his delivery, the future tense was not used once (a retrogression to the 10th century). This, on a news segment that forecasts weather! In the course of about ten minutes, I witnessed the disappearance of the future tense.

Within two weeks, all major newscasters and commentators followed the same pattern. Apparently, some consultant or other, or some broadcasting school or other, decided that the language needed a lift. Weather reports in particular suggested a redaction of the future tense. Whoever advised newscasters and commentators to inappropriately distort the future tense also advised (compelled?) them to deliberately stress words inappropriately. I couldn’t help but notice their discomfort as they struggled against the sense and rhythm of the language.

For about five years I cringed as I heard,

  • It is cloudy in New York or It is cloudy in New York or It is cloudy over New York.
  • The temperatures have been rising.
  • We do have rain falling. (note the redundancy as well)


A cop has been shot in Manhattan. Police say they have no suspects. There is a press conference tomorrow morning at 9:00 A.M. Tuesday there is a meeting between the mayor and his staff that focuses on the rise of crime in the city. The mayor is not available for comment. I even remember, Good evening. I am John Smith.

I think of those years as the spoken word’s Reign of Terror. Prepositions and parts of verbs instantly became the uncontested operative words in virtually every sentence. Of course we are all familiar with the genuine need to stress words when appropriate, but stressing them for their own sake was nothing more than an anomalous affectation created by a charlatan. Strictly for ‘innovation,’ prepositions and parts of the verbs to be, to have, and to do were invariably stressed! A trace of that nightmare survives. But I advise you not to listen for it. Once you are aware of it, it drives you crazy. At the peak of the Reign of Terror, my friends good-naturedly cursed me for having drawn their attention to that ill-conceived affectation. I wondered what that charlatan’s whim would have on children and immigrants who were learning English at that time.

Compare the inappropriate stressing of prepositions to Abraham Lincoln’s brilliant use of them when he said,

of the people, by the people, and for the people…

Language is elastic, vibrant, and boundless. Grammar is not its soul but it serves as its skeleton. It’s foolish to play competitive ‘gothcha!’ grammar games with each other or impair our communication skills with an overbearing attention to grammar. I think it’s okay to text-message, u r luv…c u 2nite. But I also think that we owe it to ourselves and future generations to resist domestic and foreign assaults on our spectacular language.

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