You may have read of the death of Marie Smith Jones, the last native fluent speaker of Eyak, once used along the Copper River in south Alaska. The notice set me to wonder if perhaps the day is not far off when we will be informed of the demise of the last known defender of the King’s English.
When that day comes, we might read in the New York Times (by then undoubtedly a weekly) an obituary that reads something like this:
PIORIA, Ill. – Harvey “Picky” Stickler, the last stout defender of proper English usage, has died. Many will remember him as an inveterate writer of letters to the editors of many now defunct large daily newspapers, carping about misspellings and violations of arcane grammar rules. He had recently turned his attention toward the Internet and its blog writers, a task that caused his health to deteriorate rapidly. He was 92 and discouraged.
His daughter and lone survivor, Lucy, had been estranged from her father for several years. “He wasn’t nicknamed ‘Picky’ for nothing,” she said from her home in Boston. “When I lived with him he was always, like, well, you know, correcting me. After my daughter was born, her and I just moved out.”
There will be no funeral services. At his request, he will be buried with his precious worn copy of an unusual book called the OED.
It is common belief that the decline of the language is the fault of the facility of the computer. This is not true. While e-mail and text messaging has certainly contributed to sloppiness, proper English usage first began to slide long ago when educators replaced old-fashioned English courses (boring topics like parts of speech and punctuation) with courses called Language Arts.
I made this discovery one evening several years ago when I found my daughter, a student in secondary school, wrestling with our young Golden Retriever named Colby (for Colby College of course) on the kitchen floor. She explained she was making a Plaster of Paris cast of one of the dog’s paws. The kitchen was a mess. The dog was not amused. “What for?” I said. “For Language Arts,” she said.
A few days later she returned from school with her sculptured paw print and the accompanying short report she had written, scrawled on lined white paper. She was beaming. At the top of the report was a similarly beaming sticky smiley face and a grade of A. I had two reactions. First, the dog’s toenails needed trimming. Second, my daughter’s writing was festooned with grammar and spelling mistakes.
Off to school I went to ask the teacher why on earth she had given my daughter an A when her paper as crammed with mistakes. She smiled in a most condescending way. “You don’t understand,” she said. “We want to teach creativity and we and we don’t want to stifle her by being picky about her spelling and grammar.”
I replied that I thought stifling and being picky was fine idea and that as a parent I had used the tactic often. (After all, we were talking about my vegetable-hating daughter who had recently cleaned out my garden and sold every bloom and tuber to the neighbors.) “She needs no creative encouragement,” I said. “What she needs is some old-fashioned instruction in the fundamentals of English.” (Note, please, how cleverly I avoided the much-defiled slogan “back to basics.”)
“Well,” the teacher sniffed, “you’ll have to take this up with the Curriculum Committee.” I did, that very week, and my plea fell on deaf ears. A senior teacher from the old school later explained. “You see,” he whispered, “many of these Language Arts teachers grew up on language arts themselves. You can’t teach what you don’t know.”
Undaunted, I have moved on. We can’t give up and the opportunity for battle abounds. We have lost the struggle to keep the noun “host” from becoming a verb, but we will retreat and center on (never “around”) the noun “author.” We will continue to point out the difference between “less” and “few,” between “as” and “like,” and, for that matter, between “between” and “among.” And we will not be loath to tell journalists that we loathe their mistakes. (My local newspaper, which once published a headline that said “One Legged Man Drowns Proving He Can Swim,” recently paid a doubtful tribute to a distinguished citizen by claiming in the over-arching headline that he was “notorious.”)
And, sure enough, in the middle of this one-sided discussion comes an e-mail from a grandson, a sophomore at one of the nation’s finer institutions of higher learning. Here’s what it says:
Dear PP [he calls me Pop Pop].
jw how ru? I’m good. Courses are fab. Profs are bad [that means good]. Thanks for your letter. Don’t remember getting 1 with a real stamp. I lol … jk ☺ pizza just came .. ttyl
Come to think of it, I probably won’t engage in any more public crabbing about poor English usage. I’ve got my hands full right here at home.