How Many Languages Do You Speak?—Nate F. Spee-Curr & Nonné Divz Bīīqr SpecGram Vol CLXXIX, No 2 Contents The Γραμματο-Χαοτικον Long-Term Care Facility for Decommissioned Mad Social Scientists—Advertisement

The Language Police

By Anita G. Gorman

For quite some time Letitia Archbold had been concerned about the decline in proper English. All sorts of errors were creeping into the language, whether in its spoken or written form. Each day, it seemed, brought yet another example of ignorance, sloppiness, or even overcorrection, the tendency of some people to want to sound erudite even though they had no idea what they were doing and thereby committed an even more egregious error. “Between you and I” was such an example of overcorrection. Those who used this solecism thought they were sounding educated, but they were wrong, wrong, wrong. “Between you and me” is correct, as Letitia would tell herself and anyone else who was listening.

There were other errors that made her shudder: “Her and her friend went shopping” almost brought tears to her eyes. She thought that might be an example of under-correction, if such a thing existed. And then there were all the would-haves. “If I would have thought of that, I would have done something different.” No, no, no. One uses the pluperfect and then the conditional perfect. Letitia was reasonably sure she had that right, since that’s the way she remembered it from her high-school Latin classes. “If I had thought of that, I would have done something different.” She smiled whenever she executed a correct example of the pluperfect followed by the conditional perfect tense.

One day she had an epiphany. Actually, she often had epiphanies, moments when some important realization occurred to her. That day she realized that in her battle against bad grammar she needed a cadre of helpers, other people who felt as strongly as she did about prepositions and where they belonged, or the proper pronunciation of certain words, or a host of other grammatical faux pas.

And so she enlisted the help of two of her friends who cared about grammar and usage, Honoria Sapientia and Gwendolyn Fairfax, both of them residents, like Letitia, of Upper Upper Grimsby, Ohio. One June afternoon she invited both Honoria and Gwendolyn to tea. The three had assembled on the patio, which looked out on the Archbolds’ spacious lawn and flower garden. Pink and red and white roses bloomed everywhere. Letitia was proud of her garden, as she was proud of her house, her coiffure, and her ability to speak and write English oh so correctly.

“My dears,” she began, after they had engaged in talk about the tea and scones, “I have invited you here for a specific reason. Of course, I always enjoy your company, but today I want to talk about what I fear may portend the total collapse of our civilization.”

Gwendolyn Fairfax and Honoria Sapientia looked concerned. Letitia continued.

“I have for quite some time noticed the general decline in the way our citizens speak and write English, that magnificent tongue spoken by millions of men, women, and children in many countries, the language with the largest vocabulary of any language in the world. So many of our compatriots abuse this great means of communication, with bad subject-verb agreement, improper placement of prepositions, and my particular bête noire, the use of the subjective case when the objective case is warranted.” Gwendolyn and Honoria looked confused. “I am referring, of course,” continued Letitia, “to such horrendous usages as ‘between you and I’ or ‘he gave the present to he and she.’ ” Letitia shuddered.

Gwendolyn had regained her confidence. “Oh yes, I see. But is there anything we can do about such lapses?”

Letitia smiled; it was a very small smile. “We can organize! We can mobilize! We can ostracize! Oh dear, perhaps not ostracize, but I did so like my rhyming pattern.” She smiled a bigger smile.

Honoria was looking interested. “But what can we do to overcome bad grammar? Stand on the street corner and pass out grammar books?” She smiled as if to convey the idea that this was a most absurd suggestion.

“Yes! That’s absolutely what we want to do. At least it’s a first step. Instead of handing out religious or political tracts, we’ll hand out grammar books! Well, perhaps that would be too expensive. We could produce a brochure demonstrating the most shocking examples of bad grammarthat shouldn’t cost too muchand hand those out, on street corners, at public events, at city council meetings. And we should be able to get a few minutes on the local news or a talk show. Yes, that’s the very thing!”

And so The Language Association of Upper Upper Grimsby was born. Letitia Archbold became president, Gwendolyn Fairfax the vice president, and Honoria Sapientia the secretary-treasurer. Since the association had only three members, it was necessary for Honoria to assume two positions.

A few months later, when the last roses of summer had expired, gold and red leaves were falling on Letitia’s lawn. The three members of TLAUUG were having their October meeting. Secretary Honoria Sapientia read the minutes. “The September meeting of The Language Association of Upper Upper Grimsby was convened by our president, Letitia Archbold. The treasurer reported that we had $100 in our checking account and $400 in our savings account, thanks to a generous donation by our president, Letitia Archbold. We spent $10 on printing twenty copies of our new booklet, Speaking Correctly in All Circumstances: A Guide for the Misinformed, for distribution on street corners. Honoria Sapientia made a motion that we ask for donations from recipients to offset the cost of the brochures. Gwendolyn Fairfax seconded the motion. The motion passed unanimously. The meeting concluded with wine, snacks, and anecdotes about examples of bad grammar encountered in the previous month.”

Letitia thought for a moment, rearranged the paisley scarf around her neck, and spoke. “Thank you, Honoria, for the secretary’s report. And, of course, for the treasurer’s report that was so nicely embedded inside the minutes. Now let’s have our repast while we determine our next move.” She poured Earl Grey tea from her favorite English teapot into bone-china cups. Then she offered delicate little cookiesRussian tea cakes and Swedish pepparkakorto her guests.

“My cleaning woman Gunhild baked the pepparkakor. They are Swedish spice cookies and so delicious.” Gwendolyn and Honoria smiled.

Letitia continued, while staring at the cookie in her hand. “As you know, our initial brochure focused on the misuse of pronouns. What do you think about dealing with incorrect pronunciations, for example, ‘forte’ versus ‘forte’?” She pronounced the first word as “fort” and the second as “fortay.”

Gwendolyn looked puzzled. Gwendolyn had a habit of looking puzzled in Letitia’s presence. “I’m not sure what you mean, Letitia.”

Letitia gave her a condescending stare. “Well, of course, you must realize that ‘forte’ (pronounced like Fort Ticonderoga)”her ancestors had fought in the American Revolution“means strength and comes to us from the French language. Therefore, it is pronounced in the French fashion. ‘Forte’ meaning loud, as in musical dynamics, is pronounced ‘fortay’ in the Italian fashion since, after all, it is an Italian word. These days hardly anyone says ‘fort’; just about everyone says ‘fortay’ even when they shouldn’t. What do you think? Shall we add the forte/forte problem to our next brochure?”

Honoria looked doubtful. “Letitia, I am afraid that error is so widespread that fighting it would be like, like, like asking everyone to stop using the word ‘acne’ since it’s based on an error.”

It was Letitia’s turn to look puzzled. “An error? Really?”

“Etymologists think that the word ‘acne’ is a corruption of the Greek word ‘acme’ meaning high point. But everyone says ‘acne’ and everyone knows what it is. So I am wondering if it’s worth our while to police the use of ‘forte’ and ‘forte.’ I think we have reached the point where if people pronounce the French word correctly, they will get stared at. I think we need to face the fact that language changes, sometimes even via error, and there is little we can do to stop the change.” Honoria looked a bit triumphant at her daring statement.

It was Letitia’s turn to speak. “So, extrapolating from your statement, are you also suggesting that we should abandon the fight to eradicate ‘between you and I’? Are you saying that there is little we can do about that horrible construction? Is that it? Should we just give up?” She was starting to feeland lookquite peeved.

Honoria straightened her spine. “No, not exactly. I read recently that we should pick our battles. I’d rather fight for prepositions followed by direct objects than for a French pronunciation versus an Italian pronunciation. I wonder how the British approach those two words. After all, they’ve been speaking English longer than the rest of us.”

“The English,” Letitia replied, “believe that all foreign words should sound English. Hence Don Quixote with the ‘x’ articulated and Don Juan with the ‘j’ sounding like John. Utterly disgraceful! And I have no idea what they do about ‘forte.’ I don’t think we should worry about what the English do, no matter how long they have been speaking the language.”

Honoria turned to Gwendolyn. “Gwendolyn, what do you think? Should we try to fight every error we can think of, or should we choose our battles? Or perhaps we should give up this entire war?”

“I like the idea of improving the language, and I was about to make some suggestions. For example, let’s talk about the difference between further and farther. And then there are those pesky misplaced modifiers, as in, ‘Wondering what to do next, the clock struck three.’ Or ‘should of’ instead of ‘should have.’ Or the total elimination of the subjunctive, as in ‘If I was you.’ And double negativeslovely in Spanish but ugly in English. ‘Lie’ versus ‘lay’! Split infinitives! Oh, there is so much to do, so much to correct!”

Letitia smiled. “Then let us continue to fight the good fight. Let us be like Don Quijotenot Don Quixoteand tilt at windmills. As dear Robert Browning wrote, ‘Ahbut a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?’ And, of course, that applies to women as well.”

How Many Languages Do You Speak?Nate F. Spee-Curr & Nonné Divz Bīīqr
The Γραμματο-Χαοτικον Long-Term Care Facility for Decommissioned Mad Social ScientistsAdvertisement
SpecGram Vol CLXXIX, No 2 Contents