by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"Every English poet should master the rules of grammar before he attempts to bend or break them."... ...Robert Graves.
Commentary of the Day - June 9, 2010: The English Professor's Burden. Guest commentary by John J. Brugaletta.
I was trying to remember a few mornings ago just what I had promised to do that day, if anything. In retirement you get those days when the world has other things on its mind. After coffee and cereal you can, if you like, go back to bed and read or doze until noon. I've told myself that noon is the limit for such sloth, and so far I've been able to obey myself in that direction, mostly because such chore-free days are about as rare as a naive used-car dealer.
But hanging over a professor's retirement there hovers a special odium. There is something about our line of work that wakens expectations from people, especially when the professor under examination taught something as effete and tony as Shakespeare. And the same goes for someone who taught, say, accounting if he or she has published a book.
But the worst of it is when new acquaintances have discovered that beneath your bow tie and tweed coat you are actually an "English professor." This, to them, means that you taught grammar and likely little beyond it. And so they will say, "English was my worst subject" (as though the subject was at fault for the failure and not the student) and then eye me for a reaction. It always reminds me of the young woman I met in a hospital waiting room (she and I were the room's only occupants) who invited me to examine her rash and began to lift her t-shirt. I'd just as soon hear grammar confessions as pore over a person's skin eruptions.
In my experience, people are not very good at composing good sentences as they are being eased out of their mother's womb. Good grammar, especially in lightly educated families is rare. Therefore, the child enters school saying things like, "This is Brock. Me and him live on the same block." And if their unlettered parents want to impress a nearby English teacher, the sentence becomes, "This is Brock. Him and me live on the same block." This sort of game often dredges up for me the story of the blue-collar citizen who was invited to breakfast with FDR. Coffee was served, Roosevelt poured some of his into his saucer, the man followed suit. Then the President set his saucer on the floor for his dog Falla. Following rules without understanding their application nearly always leads to embarrassment, though these days it is more often the observer who blushes.
I have decided that the penitents who confess only in order to elicit a reaction from me usually have less than honorable motivations. Those seem to be one or more of the following: (1) Exoneration. I am to say something along the lines of, "Oh, English grammar -- who cares?" (2) Inoculation. The message is, "I already know I'm a grammatical cripple, so don't correct me." (3) A plea for instant education. I am expected to convert their casual conversation to deathless prose in one breath.
I am no longer inclined to serve any of these aims, even if I could. Not only did I -- for thirty years -- consider composition classes the bane of my profession, I am also no longer being paid to continue carrying this albatross around my neck.
At the same time, it still irks me when I see unkempt English in print. I have often wondered about this difference in my reaction when I see double negatives and misplaced modifiers. My best guess is that I still catch the scent of sanctity in books, and the aroma, greatly reduced, emanates from books to magazines, newspapers, and even billboards. And so it is like having a pebble in my shoe when an advertiser blurts, "You'll have a lot less problems." The poor benighted soul would never write, "You'll burn a lot fewer gasoline." You count some things, while others you measure. Is that so hard to understand, particularly when the dull composer has plenty of time to check with someone who knows better before sending the text on its way?
And speaking of counting (which we were a few lines back), how much does it all count for? I myself have just broken a supposed rule of English grammar, and I will doubtless continue to break that one, because I don't agree with it. Nor did Winston Churchill, by the way.
But what is even worse is that some of the greatest authors of English literature broke some of these felonious rules. Geoffrey Chaucer once wrote of one of his Canterbury-bound pilgrims, "He nevere yet no vileynye ne sayde/In al his lyf unto no maner wight." This sentence, modernized, would read, "He never did not say nothing harmful to no kind of man." That's a quadruple negative!
And what of Shakespeare, whose every word is held immaculate by many, and whose writing was said to be "not of an age, but for all time?" Of my culture hero I will give just one example, lest the English-speaking world put him away for all time. In Hamlet, act I, scene iv, the title character says, "The air bites shrowdly, it is very cold." Not only did this demi-god of the world's greatest language misspell "shrewdly," he also committed a comma splice. If either of these sentences had appeared on one of my students' essays, the red ink would have flowed like a mighty river.
And yet if I had been looking over the shoulder of one of these giants as he wrote the violation, would I have had the audacity to correct him? You guess. Perhaps the worst part of being a retired English professor is the haunting sense that all one's zeal for linguistic purity has been more a curse than a blessing.
Still, I'm fairly certain that few literate persons have the heart to ignore the sentence, "Please excuse Gloria from Jim today. She is administrating." The spelling error may be forgivable, but the malapropism gives me the jitters.
© 2010, John Brugaletta.
John Brugaletta is an emeritus English professor, who taught at Cal State Fullerton for many years. He is well-known for his poetry.
The Irascible Professor comments: The IP shares the discomfort felt by John when he encounters a particularly egregious grammatical error in print. Perhaps we both had been hit over the head once too often with a copy of Strunk's The Element's of Style by our freshman composition professors.