Slip Sliding Away

I am not an expert on the English language. I know this because I have known people who were, including my own father, and have had the opportunity to appreciate the various aspects of our language that they knew a lot more about than I do. When I started out in publishing, for instance, I worked with old-school editors who knew which two-word combinations were compound words, which were hyphenated, and which remained separate. If you think that’s an easy bit of knowledge to acquire, believe me, it’s not.

They knew far more about commas and semicolons than I would ever learn, and they could have taken a red pencil to any column I have ever written. Although I lack their expertise, I love the language as much as they did, and I hate to see it neglected or abused.

It bothers me that we don’t teach grammar and punctuation, syntax and sentence structure, spelling, vocabulary, and rhetoric, at least to the extent that we did in the past. I cringe when I hear people at the highest levels of government, or business, medicine, law, whatever, who don’t seem to understand basic parts of speech, and it causes me to fear for the future of our culture.

Take former President Obama, for example. Politics aside, I think we can all agree that he is highly intelligent, extremely well-educated, and a gifted public speaker. Nonetheless, I have often heard him select the wrong pronoun, even when it was not a tough call. If he doesn’t know better, with all his gilt-edged diplomas, what hope is there for the rest of us?

As sad as that situation is, grammar itself is not my chief concern. At least there is a fixed set of rules for it, and people can learn and follow those rules if they so choose. If the public ever decides that grammar is important, and should be resurrected in public schools, it could make a comeback.

It’s kind of like golf. Most golfers follow some of the rules of golf, but certainly not all of them. That’s partly because they don’t know a lot of the rules, and partly because it’s just a lot easier to ignore them (and better for your score). I have trouble remembering the more arcane rules myself, and there are some that just seem silly to me, but I know a number of purists who feel passionately about the rulebook.

I don’t really care how closely my golfing partners follow the rules, nor do I care how fussy they are about sentence structure. What I care about is their use of words, because words are important, and they are also vulnerable.

English is a living language, so the meaning of words changes according to how they are used. If enough people misuse a word for long enough, then that usage becomes standard, like the popular practice these days of using nouns as verbs. It’s hip now to say that you’re “efforting” something, or being “disadvantaged.”

While I find that process annoying, it’s been going on for centuries and I don’t suppose it does any real harm. What’s truly harmful is using words to mean something completely different, even antithetical, to what they actually mean. That debases the language and undermines our ability to express our minds.

The word “incredible” has been so abused as to become virtually meaningless. If it means anything at all, it’s a synonym for good or big (like we needed one).

One of my pet peeves is the use of the word “literally” by people who are actually speaking figuratively. Someone will say that his “head literally exploded” or that he “could literally eat a horse,” when in fact those descriptions are the very opposite of literal.

The word “literally” has now become something of a political football (figuratively, that is), due to the increasingly bizarre nature of our political discourse. It’s gotten to the point that we are debating the very essence of language and truth, as if we don’t really know what words mean. The whole thing is reminiscent of Stephen Colbert’s old shtick about “truthiness,” in which it wasn’t a matter of what was actually true, but of what felt true.

Writing for The Atlantic magazine last September, Salena Zito coined the now famous line about Donald Trump, that “the press takes him literally but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously but not literally.” That may help explain a lot of things, but I’m not sure how we’re supposed to use that information going forward.

The White House Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, said that when the president claimed that he had been wiretapped by his predecessor, he wasn’t speaking literally. So how was he speaking, metaphorically? Hypothetically? If we are going to have to figure out the symbolism in every utterance the president makes, it’s going to be a very long four years. It seems pretty long already.

We are often reminded that the president is a businessman, and it always makes me think that his business world must be very different from my own. You can’t argue with success, and his success is not merely beyond my own, but far beyond anyone in our industry, perhaps even beyond the industry as a whole.

Be that as it may, it’s too late in the game for me to start playing by a different set of rules, and one of my primary rules is to tell everyone the truth. We tell our employees here not to lie to customers, suppliers, co-workers, or anyone else, and I try to follow that dictum myself.

I also believe in clarity, especially when it comes to transactions. One of my old bosses was a bear for purchase orders (and a bear in general), who taught me to put every detail of every sale in writing, and to have both parties sign off on it. At first I thought he was just being obsessive, but the first time a customer of mine disputed an order, I realized that my boss might be crazy but he wasn’t stupid.

I used to think that the three critical factors in the success of any business were product, service, and price, but over the years I have come to believe that the most crucial issue is communication. Yes, those other things are important, but ultimately what good will they do you if no one understands them?

When I got my first job in educational publishing, in 1976, the hot trend in the industry was “back to basics,” which meant a return to teaching the fundamentals of math and language. Since then the phrase has popped up periodically, mostly as a subtext for whatever catchphrase was trending at the moment.

As far as I can tell, though, it has never really happened in the classroom. I’m not saying that teachers don’t spend time on language skills, only that thus far we have not found a way to reverse the decline.

To me, the English language is one of America’s great gifts. I just hope we can keep it.

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