The Language Nazi: Putting the UGH Back in Donuts, Or: Why Nobody Invites I Anywhere No More

October 25, 2018

I have been criticized for being too liberal to run a newspaper in a place like this. As it happens, I’ve noticed that most people who read a lot, think hard, pay attention to current events, and know how to spell and punctuate—which is to say, people who might feasibly run newspapers—do tend to vote bluer than redder. Hmm. Wonder why that is…


But that point has apparently never occurred to our locals on the right. Living around here I have to endure Republicans calling Democrats stupid every time I open Facebook, which isn’t fair. Smart people aren’t allowed to call dumb people dumb. They taught us that in Sunday school (when all the future FB insulters were presumably not paying attention, but sitting in the corner picking their noses and wiping it on The Golden Book of Bible Stories).  


Anyway, it’s perfectly true that my moral compass veers more leftward than right on the national issues. Call me a commie but I can’t help noticing that the health insurance companies are bloated ticks on the underbelly of America, that hardworking people are enslaved to them for continued insulin, and thus life itself, and that the gummint instead of abolishing them has “compromised” by throwing more money at them. Don’t even get me started on that one—I tend to spit when I talk.  


​​But at The Dade Planet, we don’t fight those battles. This is a small hometown rag that focuses on local doings and steers clear of divisive political issues on the national or even the regional level. At this year’s budget hearings, when a prissy little man from the county insurance carrier came to simper to the commissioners about how much money his company was losing on them, did I point out to readers that the greed of health insurers was responsible for this year’s budget deficit? And as certain of your state-level representatives continue handing over taxpayer funds to corporations and soliciting bribes from special interests at more or less constant golf fundraisers, have I ever once pointed out that they have come to resemble even physically those pigs in Animal Farm that learned to stand on their hind legs like men?


Whoops! So. Maybe once.


One way or t’other, though, it may cheer The Planet’s more right-of-the-aisle readers that on one subject at least your narrator is Rock-of-Gibraltar, Republican-overlord, William-F.-Buckley-on-steroids conservative: English. I’m a dyed-in-the-wool defender of traditional grammar, a right-wing punctuator, and two degrees east of Adolph Hitler on spelling, willing to fight, die or invade Poland to keep the UGH in doughnut. Sometimes I feel I’m the last living human who knows the difference between “lie” and “lay,” “that” and “who”; and I have been thinking seriously about campaigning for the death penalty for misuse of the apostrophe. You have to take a hard line on core values, by God!


Ironic, isn’t it? My generation broke rules, shattered barriers and burned bras. Once, while attending a protest in Washington, I heard a fogie cluck sententiously about our youthful crowd: “You can’t tell the boys from the girls.” Now I find myself clucking sententiously every time I surf the internet: “They can’t tell their there from their they’re.” And as for your your vs. your you’re, your two, too and to, your principal vs. your principle, OMG! Sometimes I feel like the last Roman centurion standing between civilization and the invading hordes (as opposed, please note, to hoards), clutching my (correctly-used) apostrophe as a spear.  


Other times I get mad at English itself and wonder why the hell I defend such a crazy messed-up language. What is the point of having a compliment vs. complement, a capital vs. capitol, and a discreet vs. discrete, except to lure the vulnerable into sin? And for that matter, is attacking those who get it wrong even proper liberal policy?


The role of conservatives in American politics has traditionally been to perpetuate unfair privilege. Water fountains and good schools were only for white people! The armed services were only for men! Religious freedom was only for Christians! Marriage was only between a man and a woman! Liberals by contrast have fought for equality, inclusion, diversity, equal opportunity. Let black students into state universities! Let Jews into country clubs! Let women into everything! Make sure everybody can vote!


But the main purpose of having an except vs. an accept in the language, a right, rite, write and wright, not to mention a sight, cite and site, seems to be to allow those of us who paid attention in English class to look down on the ones who were sitting in the corner wiping boogers on their Weekly Reader. “Barbarians,” we scream, flinching at a then that should have been a than, or an affect that should have been an effect. “Why are they allowed to comment publicly? Take away their keyboards until they pass remedial English!”


You may scoff, but I take my work seriously and in my humble, small-town journalist capacity I like to think I have always stood up for truth, justice and the American Way; Mom, apple pie and the common man. But grammatically, a friend of mine from college once compared me to an aristocrat wrinkling my nose in disgust as I stepped disdainfully over peasants wallowing in the gutters shouting, “between you and I.”  


(And it’s true I really hate that one. It should be “between you and me.” A similar case is: “They invited Jim and I to dinner.” Take the sentence apart! You wouldn’t say “They invited I to dinner,” would you?” So I point that out every time, contemptuously, with the result that nobody ever invites I anywhere!)


Politics, shmolitics, manners, shmanners, I can’t help it. Bad English just hurts me physically and I can’t shut up about it. When I write thank you and somebody writes your welcome I am no longer grateful.


I could carry on about this forever. Probably I eventually will. I have reams to say about, for one thing, modern depredations on time-honored past tenses. My little neighbor once told me he “teached” his friend to swim, but he was 9 at the time, and home schooled. Meanwhile it was the almighty Associated Press itself that slew “pled” in favor of “pleaded”—or should I say "slayed" it? Because that’s the newest past-tense outrage I’ve seen and, I fear, the wave of the future. God save us! People were having enough trouble with lead and led.


Well, we must leave the past tense for the future. In fact, we’ll have to leave everything else for another day because I seem to have killed 1000 words on the introduction. But I haven’t even cracked the surface! Everywhere you look, somebody is using an apostrophe to form a plural, spelling “all right” as one word or writing “less people” instead of “fewer people,” as if humanity was something you measured by the pound.


(Photo: David after he "slayed" Goliath. I ask you! We've got to hold the line on this one.)


It’s all enough to make any self-respecting language Nazi curl up into a fetal ball. People tell me that English is a living, fluid language but I’ve noticed the people who tell me that can’t get 10 words out without sending me scurrying back to the bunker.


Anyway, I want the world to know I’m a staunch conservative in at least one area of life, not clinging to a perceived perfect past in classic conservative style but defending the past perfect from those who would suborn it into such sentences as, “I seen him ​​yesterday before he had went to work.” (Did that hurt you, too?)


I'm a liberal. I'm an aging hippie. I'm a crusadin' goddam journalist. I want the world to change. I want sweeping reforms in law, economics and the social structure--but linguistically I’ll eat a donut when you pry the UGH from my cold, dead fingers.


We must end here, but I’m not through yet. Our subject for next week is possessiveness, greed, the root of all evil and the proper use of the apostrophe.

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