Baby boomers don’t have a hammerlock on good grammar. In fact we came up with some of the worst. But BoomerCafé co-founder and executive editor Greg Dobbs bemoans the fact that our language doesn’t just seem to change, it seems to degenerate.
I’ve spent much of my life policing people’s grammar. Too much of it, if you ask the people I’ve policed.
Not that mine is perfect. For example I still get mixed up by the difference between “lay” and “lie.” Should I say I’m “laying” down or “lying” down? Well, it’s the latter… I think. “Lay” is an active verb; it means you put something down. “Lie” means something is down, probably horizontally. So I guess if I’m resting on the bed, I’m “lying” down… unless I’ve laid my body down. The only thing I know for sure is, I’m horizontal either way.
Until recently I had the same problem with “farther” and “further.” As in, “I can’t go any farther” versus “I can’t go any further.” Which one is right? Aha. Trick question! Arguably they both are. “Farther” relates to distance, so “I can’t go any farther” means I can’t take another step. “I can’t go any further” might mean, by way of an explanation, “I can’t go any further with this description because I’ve told you everything I know.”
Or should I explain it to you further?
By the way, “who” and “whom” are another puzzle that perplex me to this very day.
But for all my lingual limitations, it doesn’t stop me from foraging for flaws in others. For instance, for many years when someone told me he felt “nauseous,” I corrected him: “If you are nauseous, it means you make other people sick. What you want to say is, you feel nauseated.”
Which probably made him feel nauseated about me.
When a server in a ritzy restaurant asked what I wanted for my “entree,” I corrected the server, explaining in so many words, “Entree comes from French and what it means in France is, the first course. Think of the root of the word: it’s the ‘entry’ to the meal. Like soup, a salad, an appetizer. If you mean, what do I want for my main dish (called the “plat principal” in France, which translates to “principal plate”), I want chicken.”
Yes, I am a guy who likes to hit his head against a brick wall. And yes, you would be right to conclude, since I lived five years in France, I’m a snob. You also would be right to conclude, I must be pretty dull if all I ever wanted was chicken. In any event, it probably made servers sorry that I’d ever made my “entree” into that restaurant.
Which brings me to my latest linguistic pet peeve: “So.” Not that “so” is so bad. To the contrary, think about the sentence you just read. “So” is in it for emphasis, as a synonym for “too” or “unacceptably” or “horribly.” I could have written, “Not that ‘so’ is horribly bad,” and you’d have gotten the same meaning out of it. Likewise, “so” sends positive emphasis: “I am so confused by all this.”
And sometimes, “so” suggests cause and effect. Like a couple of weeks ago, in the calm-as-a-cucumber communication from Southwest pilot Tammie Jo Shults (a baby boomer, we’re proud to say) to a Philadelphia air traffic controller after one of her two engines blew up: “We have a part of the aircraft missing, so we’re going to need to slow down a bit.” A classic case of cause and effect. The cause? Part of the aircraft is missing. The effect? No choice, we’re slowing down. She was so right.
But if “so” is often used effectively, what’s the pet peeve? It is this: people have started answering questions with “So,” even though it serves no purpose, not as a point of emphasis, not as a link between cause and effect, and not as a conclusion (“So the answer to two plus two must be four.”).
The other day I was listening to an interview on a National Public Radio show and if the host asked a dozen questions, the guest began answering ten of them with “So.” I was riding my bike at the time, so I didn’t take notes (that, by the way, is another example of cause and effect), but let me give you a couple of made-up examples. Q: Where did you go to school? A: So I went to C.S.U.” Or, Q: What time did you hear the explosion? A: So it was about 11 o’clock.
So when did people start starting their responses with “So?” I looked it up, and although there is no empirical answer, I did come across a pretty good illustration of how widespread it has become. Evidently someone at NPR a few years ago was frustrated by the same issue (well, okay, I’ll admit, it’s not an issue for all of us), and did some research. The upshot? Reporters and hosts— remember, these are supposed to be role models for the English language— started sentences with the word “so” 237 times in a single week.
The article about it, incidentally, was on NPR’s own website, and made this astute assertion about grammatical fixations like mine: “Not everybody cares about it, but the ones who do care care a lot.”
Language, after all, is fluid. Or at least, it’s supposed to be. That’s why the word “bad” now sometimes means “good.” “Sick” can mean “cool” and “cool” doesn’t have to be about the temperature. Years ago, when I hosted a show on the big talk radio station in Denver, I had the editor of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary on the air, and my favorite takeaway was what he told me about the listings of the definitions of words: every ten years, when they put out a new edition, the orders of some definitions change, reflecting frequency of usage. That’s why once, the first definition of “nauseous” was (ahem, quite properly), “Causing nausea,” or put more simply, “Making someone sick.” Now, that’s in the second position, replaced by the more frequently used, “Affected with nausea,” as in, “Feeling sick.”
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It also explains the frequency of use these days of the word “awesome” although, while it may explain it, it still doesn’t excuse it. “Awesome” is heroism, love, generosity, the Grand Canyon. It is decidedly not the act of coming up with exact change when you buy a bag of chips at the convenience store. As often as not though, the clerk’s response will be, “Awesome.”
But, like it or not (and I don’t), that’s where our language is. Just please don’t say, “That’s where our language is at.” That’s a whole ‘nother column.
Greg’s book about the wacky ways of a foreign correspondent, Life in the Wrong Lane, is available next month as an audiobook — which Greg narrates himself — and can be preordered to download right here.