column By: Tom Carney | August, 17
The other day, a social media quiz decided I suffer from Grammar OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder). But just because I may pay a little more attention to good English, that doesn’t make me a “Grammar Nazi.”
It’s just that language, and the clean, clear proper use thereof, have always been important to me as a person and in my jobs. As a public high school English teacher and a freelance writer, I have striven both to employ elements of the English language clearly and properly and to instruct and inspire others to do the same. Now, as the editor of a magazine, I insist that we model for our readers the most precise use of language possible.
That’s why you’ll never see in our pages a line reminiscent of Groucho Marx’s “Yesterday I shot an elephant in my pajamas.” One time though, as I edited a story, I discovered the writer wanted readers to know, “I saw a grouse getting out of my truck.” I couldn’t resist asking him if the grouse were driving that truck, and if so, how could his short little legs reach the pedals. And get this: The writer and I are still on speaking terms!
So suffice it to say if something appears in this magazine, we have gone over it several times to make sure it is correct. Except for when we occasionally miss a spot. In that case, it has been gone over several times without our realizing it’s wrong. But we try.
I tell you this because in matters of grammar and usage, my second biggest fear is that readers will think I am inept. And starting with this issue of the magazine, I am risking that as I do combat with my greatest fear: becoming a language dinosaur.
If one says they love the English language, they must accept the fact that it is a living, breathing entity, one that changes over time. To resist change is to start the march to the tar pits and eventual extinction. So we must accept changes in the language.
Except this one.
There’s a thing I call the “mid-word hiccup” that is becoming more and more prevalent in everyday use. If I had to guess, I’d say it started with rappers who would adjust word enunciation to fit the rhythms of their compositions, then readjust how the word is pronounced. Come to think of it, the first use of such a hiccup I remember hearing is in Eminem’s “Stan,” when the narrator asks if his idol Slim remembers the Phil Collins song where one guy could have saved another from drowning but “di-unt.”
See how he took the word didn’t and by dropping the middle “d” kind of put a vocal hiccup in there? Other such words: shuh-unt (shouldn’t), car-uhn (carton), or buh-uhn (button). Most recently, my dental hygienist needed to pad my tooth dry, so she told me she was going to use some kah-in. And I shudder when a non-Michigander tells me I live in the “Mi-uhn State.”
I refuse to accept this new usage. For now, anyway.
Recently, however, I came to the conclusion that a couple of battles were no longer mine to wage. When both the Associated Press and The New York Times adopt formerly nonstandard usage as commonly acceptable, it’s time to surrender.
Or as a motivational speaker once told a group of us teachers on the topic of unsuccessful methods of student discipline, “If the horse is dead … dismount.”
The first change is pretty easy to explain. The word might indicates “a possibility”; may indicates “permission.” People ignore the different meanings to such a degree – using may when they mean might – that the unofficial arbiters of usage in America no longer make the distinction. That is why, after undergoing much anxiety and no small degree of stomach gurgles, I made the 20th word in this column may.
The second adjustment has to do with pronouns. The Associated Press has announced from now on it will use the plural pronoun they to refer to single nouns when the gender isn’t specific. Previous to this, I would rewrite sentences like, “Every hunter needs to make sure they do their best,” or “Next, a team member brings their work completion sheet for the supervisor to review.” I struggled and tried to fight against this, but The Upland Almanac follows the AP’s guidelines, so I’m stuck. Plus I don’t want to be a dinosaur, so I have to accept change, as you’ll see in my sentence above, “If one says they love the English language, they must accept the fact.”
So if you are as disconcerted as I am by this new usage, please don’t think it’s because we are getting sloppy or because I’m an inept editor.
It’s just time to dismount.