Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Why I'm a Grammar Snob and Other Stuff

A fellow sexagenarian and one time classmate, my friend Greg has been a trusted confidante for many years and we share numbers of emails back and forth each week, writing to each other about just about any topic under the sun that’s interesting at the time.  Like many old timers, we look to the past for sweet memories of times that seemed to be simpler, easier, and better in some ways than living in a present when there doesn’t seem to be a lot of civility and getting along as there seemed to be back then.  To be certain, though, we're both quite glad still to be ticking some forty-three years out of high school, and while it seems most of the time that we know just about everything there is to know about each other, now and then one of us manages to pose a question to the other that isn't immediately answerable without giving it some thought.  So it was a few days ago when Greg asked me why I’m probably the biggest snob about education (regarding syntax and grammar specifically) that he knows and I found myself scrambling for a quick answer, which there didn’t seem to be.

Greg was corresponding with a retired gentleman who’s well educated and who had enjoyed respectable status in the community, having had been a federal judge for a number of years, regarding a cycling event in which both were planning to ride, and mentioned to me that the guy writes emails like E. E. Cummings did poetry with no capitalizations and neither punctuation marks to separate his phrases and sentences.  I, naturally had to make mention of how little I think of persons who do that when Greg posed the question about my being a snob regarding such things.  I never thought of myself that way simply for expecting others to use English skills that were taught at least in rudimentary form in kindergarten, so to answer his question I knew that some quality introspection needed to be done.  That’s where the scooter comes in; I do my best thinking, especially about myself, when I’m out riding.

 I got my trusty steed ready to roll, but didn’t make it a mile from home when I realized that I was under dressed for the occasion because, as usual, I underestimated how cold it actually was and would be once I was in motion.  I made it around the long block only to park in front of the house for a minute or two while I ran in to bundle up.  Naturally I had no idea of where I even planned to go because ending up somewhere wasn’t important in the least.  I just needed the relatively distraction free environment on the scooter to hammer out my thoughts and forge them so they’d make sense, most of all to me. 
If that last sentence threw you because of how hyper vigilant somebody needs to be while riding on city streets on two wheels with many distractions, don’t over think it.  Being able to pay attention for potholes, dumb pedestrian moves, and dip wads driving cars as if they’d never driven before isn't the kind of thinking that interferes with the important stuff like, “Why do I feel the need to be hung up on how the English language is used?”

It has been a very unseasonably cold April this year so the Piaggio hasn’t gotten a single decent washing yet as I’ve not yet restored water service to the outdoor spigots.  Yes, it bothers me a little for the bike to look so dirty, but I can’t bring myself to wash it and get myself all wet and cold, a combination I particularly deplore.

After I dressed more sensibly I got back on the scooter and headed one community over from here to the top of a hill where there’s a municipal park that, as I suspected, would be deserted because the kids are still in school.  As I rode I began thinking about why I insist on good English to the extent that I will not typically even accept a Facebook friendship from somebody who writes like a baboon.  (Exceptions are made for pretty women, though.  Dumb doesn’t make them any less attractive to the eyes.)

I’m sure that part of the reason for my snobbery is simply that I was a teacher for 30+ years and that many of my assignments had me teaching middle school English, (and the grammar side, not Literature usually), and it was my job to fix bad English.  That compulsion to “red pen” grammar mistakes is ingrained and it’s not so simple to just "turn it off” now that I'm retired.

(I have no idea why Blogger changed the font for the following paragraph, nor can I figure out how to fix it.)

There’s more to it too, though, that’s also related to my career as a teacher, and it has to do with respect.  As a teacher one will not survive in any classroom from pre-school through graduate school without commanding respect.  Yes, a good teacher will eventually earn the respect of a classroom full of “kids" if he's worth his salt, but even before it can be earned, respect must be demanded from day one if one is to keep control of a classroom in order to do the day’s lessons without all hell breaking loose.  I was proud of being well respected by about 99.9% of the students I taught through the years, and I detested having to demand at least the overt respect of the .1% who had for various reasons never been taught by their parents to show respect even to them, but when I called for quiet, an observer would have been able to hear a pin drop in my classroom, and a very fine, light, small pin at that.

Using correct English in correspondence is a sign of respect.  It implies a respect for someone for whom the “extra effort" of holding down that shift key to make a capital letter, spelling out a word like “you” in full, and pressing that period at the end of a sentence is worth it.  Correspondingly, writing something like, “how r u today,” suggests a disdain for the person to whom one is writing.  It says, “I don't think you're worth all that hard work of writing correctly,” to me regardless of the writer’s actual intent.  My ultimate answer to Greg, why I’m a grammar snob, is about that - respect or the consequences when there is a lack of it.

(And here's that font nonsense once again!) 

 Honestly I’m very tired of hearing, “It’s not important as long as the message gets across.”  It’s not that simple.  Ours is increasingly a society of “It doesn’t matter."  The big news services are constantly putting into the spotlight idiotic circumstances where proper authorities try to enforce rules that are being broken with impunity.”  As an example, consider a private school with a dress code that requires specified hair lengths for boys in which there is one boy who gets his head shaved bald to ‘support my friend who has cancer.’”  He’s suspended for a clear and concentrated breaking of the rules.  It should end there.  He should serve his suspension and that should be the end of it.  But, no.  A day later there on CNN the local story is appears as national news decrying the school’s administration for being so heartless in expecting compliance with a simple rule.  There’s no respect left, not even for the Office of the President of the United States.  After decades in the classroom where, as I noted, respect determines the tone of every aspect of the interactions between a group of students with one person in charge, I'm not just going to kick the concept to the curb because I’m now retired.

There is more to the story.  I happen to like a rich vocabulary.  Meanings, which are more concise because of the choices of certain words, are communicated better when using the “correct" words.  "Big" and "enormous" more or less mean the same thing, but they don’t connote exactly the same concept.  On the other hand, I deplore the creations of portmanteau words such as, “humongous,” and, “ginormous,” that are created by persons who think they're way more clever than they actually are in making new words that do not add anything to the meanings of already existing words.  So, in addition to folks who can use proper punctuation and such, I like to engage in correspondence with persons who don’t write like dolts who seem like they never made it past the fourth grade.

 I suppose it was all that thinking of things school related that led me to where I ended up atop that hill where is the colorful gazebo by which I used to measure the starts and the endings of my academic years.  Each year, right about now there would be perhaps six or seven weeks of school left and I'd head to that gazebo with a light heart already anticipating that last day of school soon to come and the precious freedom it would bring with it.  On occasion during each summer I’d venture back there simply to nail home that feeling of relative irresponsibility I enjoyed when school was out.  With a heavy heart I’d go there too as August wound down realizing that my time of fun was coming to an end, just as I'd venture there sometimes in early autumn when school was already back in session trying to squeeze out an extra minute or two of pretending that I was still free to come and go as I pleased regardless of what day of the week or time of day it might be.

Being on the hill also presented me with the opportunity to put my new Sony camera through some of its paces.  I needed to replace the beloved Nikon that served me well for a number of years in nearly constant residence in the pouch attached to my belt, and for the cost and features, the Sony HX80 was the perfect replacement.  Unless I’m going to the gym, when I travel light, I always carry a full point and shoot camera with me instead of just using my phone to document my experiences.

 The hills in the Back Mountain form the western wall of the Wyoming Valley.

The available 30x optical zoom of the Sony brings the hills much closer, even with some numbers to spare.  A tripod would have made the scene much clearer, but it’s not bad for a hand held shot.

  The three Xs in a row say I’m a winner for introspecting and enjoying myself on a great scooter ride.  I kept the baseball (actually hockey) cap on under the helmet on the ride home.  It was still a little chillier than I’d hoped the ride would be.

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