When it comes to the English language, lots of folks wave it about like a plastic light saber, thinking it can’t hurt anyone – until “irregardless” puts out an eye, or “alright” breaks a glass candy dish.
Not to be confused with my real, live third-grade homeroom teacher Miss Stern, don’t you remember how the figurative Miss Stern beat into your developing gray matter that “who” is used as a subject and “whom” an object?
I know what you’re thinking: “Whom cares?”
I hear you – and you sound ridiculous. However, I’m not one of those English teachers moonlighting as a linguistic cop sporting a desktop placard: “I’m silently correcting your grammar” while holstering usage mace to spray anyone mistaking the noun “effect” for its fraternal verb twin “affect.”
What if other career professionals posted similar signs? Might a minister post “I’m silently counting your sins,” or a financial adviser forewarn, “I’m silently stealing your portfolio”?
It makes me cringe, however, when hearing media know-it-alls and congressional big-wigs mangle the language. Like when a news anchor reports, “a large amount of forest fires,” or informs, “we had less forest fires last year.” “Amount” and “less” identify things not countable, such as “a small amount of uranium left in a reactor.” “Number” and “few” identify countable objects: “The northern pike ate a fairly large number of frogs today, but fewer than yesterday.”
Speaking of adverbs, which I wasn’t, the word “fairly” in that last example should be stricken – along with most other adverbs. A whole rain forest could have been saved had J.K. Rowling not added redundancies to her Harry Potter dialogue: “Hermione shouted stridently”; “Ron grunted growlingly” (I’m exaggerating, but not much).
To belabor my aversion to adverbs, instead of “Ted is incredibly (or “really” or “very”) tall,” say, “Ted grew tall as a late-July Midwest prairie Black Snakeroot.” That way, everyone knows Ted resembles a plant.
Still with me? Or have you bailed, weary of my obsessive-compulsive disorder? If you stuck around, no doubt you care about the nuances of your delivery. You prefer clarity, not confusion. You care about rhythmical, manicured sentences that massage the eye and ear rather than hammering your point home with the subtlety of Raskolnikov’s ax.
If so, check out Benjamin Dreyer’s “Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style.” The Los Angeles Review of Books contends it “‘The Elements of Style’ for the 21st century, but you can read this straight through for fun.”
“Grammar, usage, and style ‘fun’?” you ask, chuckling at the absurdity. Yeah! If not fist-fighting over the Oxford comma, turning bellicose over a conjunction kick-starting a sentence, or screaming a grammarian down over writing two consecutive fragments, what else would writers talk about over mint juleps sipped on a wraparound porch overlooking formal gardens?
By the way, I haven’t read Dreyer’s book. Unread books are the only books I recommend. That way, if someone accuses me of a taste in literature worse than my taste in apparel (that’s saying a lot), I can plead ignorance (my usual go-to defense). I have, however, asked for a copy for my birthday. Because whom cares? Me do, and so should you.
Rick Holinger lives in Geneva, teaches at Marmion Academy, and facilitates Geneva library’s writing workshop. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.