Thursday, August 22, 2013

O Tempora, O Mores: Thank you, Barry Saunders

…the meaning of words is to communicate, not elevate education…
—text in an email from one of my nephews
Barry Saunders is a columnist for The News & Observer, and a damn good one at that. I do not agree with everything he says in his writings, but this week, he penned a piece that warmed the cockles of my heart, as my Dad often said. Headlined, Proper language is dead, and I don’t feel good about it, Saunders opined about improper grammar used in writing and conversation. He didn't just offer his opinion; he gave examples.

Most of Saunders cases-in-point were familiar due to my Mother and her demand for proper grammar. Sitting around the breakfast, lunch or dinner table, enjoying a delicious meal and the standard family banter, my brothers and sisters (and Dad) were careful not to misuse “sit and sat” or “I and me,” or to make any grammatical infractions. But it happened, and in mid-sentence, Mom would correct us with little hesitation.

At Mom’s funeral in 2007, as I motioned at her inside her casket, I purposely concluded a eulogy of sorts with, “As she lays in front of us…” to which the congregation in the First Baptist Church of Sanford was quick to correct, “LIES in front of us…”

After reading and enjoying Saunders criticism of the butchering of the English language, I sent him an email of praise:

My mother thanks you from her grave; AC Snow probably thanks you; and, I thank you for today’s column: Proper language is dead, and I don’t feel good about it.  The column was excellent and should be required reading at all levels of education. However, near the end you wrote: Wouldn't it be nice if, someday soon, 1 million English teachers, parents and students descended upon Washington arm in arm to demand that proper spoken and written word use be adhered to?

Ending a sentence in a preposition is a no-no, even today with many English instructors and scholars dropping that requirement. You should have written: Wouldn't it be nice if, someday soon, 1 million English teachers, parents and students descended upon Washington arm in arm to demand that the spoken and written word adhere to proper use? (By the way, isn't correct AP-style to spell out numbers one through nine?) Any chance you could convince the writers and editors at The N&O to stop ending sentences with prepositions?

Many years ago, back in 2005, I read in an article in The N&O a quote from Gene Nichol, a person with whom you should be quite familiar. Here’s what he said as he tried to down-play his rumored move from UNC-Chapel Hill to William & Mary: "I agreed after a lot of thought to be one of the finalists. I love it here. I'm not on the market. I'm not seeking another job. I have a long relationship with William & Mary. It's this unique school. It's a strong public school, which really is more of the format of a small liberal arts college. I think I'm staying. No one loves North Carolina more than me."

Saying, “No one loves North Carolina more than me” is incorrect unless he meant, “No one loves North Carolina more than no one loves me.” He should have said, “No one loves North Carolina more than I.” My respect for Nichol was low before his statement, and it was confirmed after it. After further consideration, maybe he meant what he said.

I sent Mr. Nichol’s quote to renowned grammar expert James J. Kilpatrick who was kind enough to respond with: “Thanks, in a way, for your e-mail. I am aghast, or something near it, at the thought that a fellow who messes up on nominative and objective pronouns may become the president of William and Mary.  O Tempora, O Mores!  To what is the world coming?”

Thanks again for your column. However, while you may have pleased a few, you may have offended the masses. Keep up the good work!

PS—If for some reason you are unfamiliar with the phrase O Tempora, O Mores, “look it up,” my mother would say!

No response from Saunders was expected; none came. He must have been laughing at some very stupid and dumb comments posted beneath his column and didn't have time to respond to me or anyone else who took the time to praise his work. That’s okay.

I forwarded the email and the web link to Saunders' column to several friends and foes including one of my nephews, a young writer who skirts the rules of grammar quite often and sees no wrong in it. He responded quickly and somewhat defensively, it appeared to me.

NEPHEW: I enjoyed your letter much more than the column. As an intellectual, you know I agree to some degree and enjoy the occasional rhyme. However, serious question I would like you to put some serious thought into: What is the aim of said adherence or even pedantic adherance (sic) to these rules? (He loves the word “pedantic” as he has included it in several follow-up texts. I believe he feels that way about rules in general.)

MY RESPONSE: To keep the education level of our citizens high. Words have meaning, just as I noted in the example of Gene Nichol. Maybe he was thinking highly of himself and purposely said it that way though he’s not smart enough to have done that.

NEPHEW: Your point is taken but the meaning of words is to communicate, not elevate education. And no one was unclear with what the author meant there, whether he broke a rule or not. 

So, based on the words of my nephew, Saunders was off base with his column. Maybe we shouldn't worry about the English language and correct grammar therein. Words are for communication, says my nephew, not for elevation of education. He should tell that to the educators/teachers in his life, including, at the very least, his PhD Dad, Mother, two sisters, a brother-in-law, an aunt and an uncle. Words are not to be used to elevate education, he says, just to relay meaning even if the meaning is not what it is supposed to be, I guess.

Thanks again to Barry Saunders for his column. Keep it up. Better education makes for a better citizenry, and you, sir, are helping in that effort.
If you've not read this Barry Saunders column, here’s the link: Proper language is dead, and I don’t feel good about it. It was posted to The N&O’s website Sunday, August 18, and it appeared in the Monday, August 19, 2013 print edition.