An old dog’s views on grammar

Posted by Tom Camfield

I spent some student years scribbling longhand before taking up typing in 1944 at PTHS I’ve spent the major portion of the intervening 75 years composing at a keyboard, basically professionally, through decades of newspapering, some 4,000 book pages, etc. Pretty much just computer research, blogging, emailing and such these later years.

I also was long a fan of the late James Kilpatrick, American newspaper journalist, columnist, author, writer and grammarian. In no way for his conservative politics—but for his keen assessment of the English language. His book “The Writer’s Art” remains a great textbook for an American of any age, and he wrote a syndicated column under the same title for many years before dying at 89.

One of his greatest peeves was the misuse of the word “only” by seemingly 99.9% of the public, including professional writers. When someone wrote such as “I only wanted two things,” he preached for the specific clarity of “I wanted only two things.” Look at any sentence containing “only,” recast the wording in this manner—and if there’s any hope for you, you’ll find that it sounds more correct and professional. That first “I only wanted . . . “ version begins to look like a disjointed expression of some vague overall obsession, with “only” sort of out in left field.

To me, the word “damn” is equally misused, except for by a very small minority. Common usage is “that damn traffic cop” or the “damn bus line” or the “damn Congress.” But damn is a verb. Properly, one might say “Damn that cop” or “Damn that bus line.” And once one damns something it is “damned,” the adjective. One could properly say, “Damn that idiot in the White House,” and it would then be proper to refer to him as “that damned idiot in the white house.”

We all used to refer to “a couple of this” and “a couple of that,” but nowadays the “In” thing has become “a couple ideas,” or “a couple whatevers,” etc. But a “couple” is two, just as a pair. I see no one referring to “a pair shoes” or “a pair earrings.” I will continue to champion “a couple of ideas” and “a pair of shoes.” If I want to refer to more than two, I might refer to “a few ideas” or whatever. “Few” sort of indicates, but is not restricted to, three or thereabouts.

In the same way, I don’t buy “graduating high school.” I did nothing to my high school; rather, it graduated me (perhaps with relief). And there’s also the whole gradation scale thing (gradual passing FROM one stage to another); one “graduates from” one level to another. I “graduated from” middle school to high school and “from high school” to my next level of intellectual pursuit.

Seems people are intent on screwing up the language by trying to put on airs with it. In my day we had a rOdeo; nowadays it’s often fancied up as a rodEo. And cYote has become cyOtE.

More often or not you will find the Smiths referred to as “the Smith’s” on house signs. With ‘s a possessive, one is left wondering if a single Smith is bragging about his possession of that home. And 1980’s is just plain dumb use of the apostrophe to wrongfully designate a plural. It really calms my mind some days to find someone referring to the ‘80s, with the apostrophe properly indicating that the 19 has been dropped and not wrongfully placed in an abomination such as the 80’s.

And then there’s the word “decimate.” It’s original meaning was to “reduce by a tenth.” Yet any degree of massive damage these days often draws the description “decimated.” Using ‘decimate” than some more general term such as “devastate” is not the indication of intelligence that some seem to think.

How about the common “He’s older than me.” The intended meaning there is “He’s older than I am,” with the “am” remaining unspoken. One wouldn’t say “He’s older than me am.” One should say, “He’s older than I.” (am)

I’ve used my allotted space . . .


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Fred Camfield

Many words are used wrong. Consider the word damn, a verb, which is sometimes confused with dam, a noun (or sometimes used as an adjective). A dam was a small coin of little value, so "not worth a dam" means something has little value. In an adjective form, "a dam idea" means the idea has little value.

| Tuesday, January 29, 2019