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A Yankee Notebook

April 1, 2013


EAST MONTPELIER, VT – Woolley, Scott, and Tressler. The names were synonymous with pain, oppression, and tyranny. They appeared on the cover of the handbook of English that we were required to obtain for our studies at Mount Hermon School. It would have done no good to point out to our teachers that Edwin Woolley was a bit superannuated – he’d died in 1916, and a second edition didn’t appear until 1952, my senior year – so we learned his rules, usually the hard way: by breaking one or two. Sophomore year was a proper-usage boot camp.

The drill instructor was Thomas A. Donovan – TD, we called him. He assigned a weekly “theme,” a two-page essay, written in ink on lined tablet paper, usually discussing an assigned topic. It was due each Monday morning at the start of class. Before long, each of us automatically folded his in halves lengthwise and handed it forward as TD entered the room. Folded just so, it displayed the author’s name, his class section, and the date.

It was returned Wednesday, with corrections and comments in red pencil, looking as if someone had splashed tomato sauce on the script. Misspellings were major infractions: not death sentences, unless there were more than three, but certainly disabling injuries. The offending sentence had to be rewritten with the word spelled correctly, and the word written ten times. More troublesome were notations like “W 37b.” That meant you’d fallen afoul of one of Mr. Woolley’s rules. You looked it up, wrote it out on your corrections page, and then rewrote the sentence properly. At the end of the essay, TD wrote a general comment. Most memorable were his graphic reactions; he was a bit of a cartoonist. I remember best a drawing of a manure fork sticking out of a pile of ordure, with a fly buzzing about in the air above. It implied that the essay was a bit short of facts and unjustifiably long on conclusions. Total rewrite required.

“If you don’t master the instrument,” he was fond of saying when we ventured mild complaints, “you can’t play the music. And until you master the music, you can’t improvise on it.” The instrument for him was the English language. If we mastered it – an unlikely achievement, in his opinion – then we could manipulate it to our advantage. I don’t know about the others, but I never forgot that word, “manipulate.” It meant we could abuse it; but also that others could, too: that we could be manipulated by language. This was not long after the revelations about the Goebbels propaganda machine in Germany, and during the Red Scare in the United States, when politicians were trying to frighten Americans into approving extralegal methods (sound familiar?) for ridding the country of undesirables who wished us ill. TD’s skepticism was infectious.

His implied snobbery was, too, for better or worse. His job was to insist on our mastery of the language – the largest, most expressive, and most dynamic of all modern tongues. But it’s in that one word, “dynamic,” that the conundrum lies. If English is constantly changing, of what use are ancient rules? Isn’t insistence on “proper” usage simply the snobbery of the educated elites and disconnected intellectuals?

Well, yes and no. As far as I know, nobody’s repealed the law that the subject and verb in a sentence must agree; but it would be pleasant to think that when they don’t, the writer did it that way on purpose, that he at least knew the difference and did it for effect. That is most likely not the case. Other usages have run away from us, as well. Television, for example, is a medium of communication, as is radio, or the newspaper. But “medium” has disappeared from current English, except as a dress or shirt size, and “media,” its plural, is now used as a singular. I can stand that, as long as I think the user knows the difference. Increasingly, I’m afraid, he does not. This is especially evident in young news “anchors,” who wouldn’t last a week in TD’s class. They’ve all been protected by vaccination from whooping cough, which they can’t pronounce. Few of them, mentioning the Roman Catholic church’s problems, go with the preferred pronunciation of “diocese.” But I don’t think it’s because they looked it up and decided against it.

“Healthful” has disappeared from America, though its definition is clear. If you ate a “healthy” lunch, it would still be alive and wriggling. And in this brave new world of SpellCheck, apostrophes are scattered through the Internet like stray bullets. SpellCheck is useful for catching typos, but if you don’t know how to spell a word, it’s almost useless. A few misspellings, misplaced apostrophes, and a wrong “your” can suck all the steam out of an argument.

If you hired a carpenter and asked him to go get the sixteenth-inch nail set, and he said he didn’t know what that was, you’d begin to question – at least in your mind – his competence to do fine work. If you were looking for an attorney, and the prospect in view didn’t bother to distinguish between “its” and “it’s,” you’d probably keep on looking. You’ve got to master the instrument first. It’s probable that a failure to do that reflects an equivalent failure to muster the energy to master the material under discussion.

Not that anybody’s perfect. We all foul up now and then, and sometimes good editors miss our mistakes. Even Itzhak Perlman and Yo Yo Ma hit clinkers now and then, which no doubt distress them more than they do their listeners. But when contributors to Internet blogs, for example – anonymous behind avatars and excited by others’ contrary opinions – trample all over punctuation, spelling, and protocols of evidence, you’ve got to regret for their sakes that they had no TD to hold their figurative feet to the fire; that nobody insisted effectively on the rules of composition; that perhaps – worst of all – even their teachers didn’t know the difference, or care.

Photo by Willem lange