The Coast News Group
Small Talk

Word watchers keep me on my toes

I have a lovely friend who calls herself a “guardian of the language,” and she is.
She teaches English to high school students who, in spite of the best efforts of their parents and a host of skilled professionals, come to her saying things like they “brang” that book home. By the time she is through with them, the worst of them at least appreciate that brang is not going to be found in the dictionary. The best of them write better than I ever will. (I made her stop sharing their papers to read. I was breaking out in hives of insecurity.)
While the grammar police have knocked on my door several times over the years, I try to maintain my membership as a fellow “guardian of the language.” I do my small part, correcting elementary-level students on brung, bringed and brang and pointing out that while they may have done good they also did well. I thought I was holding up the flag by refraining from using words like parenting and unique, and insisting that toward and anyway never end in “s.”
Then, just when I thought I was sneaking by, a friend sent me articles by two big-time linguists who have me wondering if someone might come and unceremoniously rip the literacy stripes right off my sleeve.
Celestine Sibley, an Atlanta journalist who wrote until the day she died in 1999, had written a wonderful commentary about the “tacky” expression “you guys.” She heavily frowned on using “guys” as an all-inclusive noun for young and old, male and female. I don’t disagree. I just need to point out that, as much as we would like to, here in the melting pot of Southern California, most of us cannot claim a Southern upbringing and so do not have the luxury of using that graceful and accurate phrase, “you all.” We must remain tacky but practical until a better group reference is coined. I’ll get right to work on that.
The second article was from the Wall Street Journal by author and militant language guardian John Simon. This was a review of the newest Grammar Police Bible, “Modern American Usage” by the late Wilson Follett. Had I harbored any serious illusions that I take my language seriously, Mr. Simon and Mr. Follett brought me up short.
Of the book’s appendix, Simon says “Don’t skip it: Such a heedless appendectomy would cost you — in a mere 24 pages — the best possible summary of what grammar, syntax and good usage are about.” I’ll just bet he doesn’t read a lot of Jackie Collins or People magazines.
He goes on to speak harshly to those who use “viability” as a pretentious and nonsensical, vogue word  for “validity or feasibility.” Ouch. The article goes on to chastise those who confuse “parameter” and “perimeter.” He calls “between you and me” ghastly. He even bragged that he had caught the book’s author in a “rare lapse.”
I know there are plenty of word watchers out there who have cut me a goodly amount of slack up until now. I want you to know I appreciate your forbearance. Meanwhile, I am truly glad Simon is out there fighting the good fight, but I’m dad-blamed tickled that he doesn’t hang out in these parts.