Robert B. Simpson: Language crank

February 22, 2014 

In less than a month, barring unforeseen catastrophe, I'll be 80 years old. That's not a statement of accomplishment, but rather a personal exclamation of shock and awe. Living seems preferable to dying, but aging is not exactly a bundle of fun. Benefits that come with maturity peaked a long time ago and have dwindled down to a precious few. Yet there is one advantage to this age thing that I welcome with pleasure and will use with abandon.

It's a well-known fact that when you reach 80, you gain the right to be a crank. Cranky people who are also colorful and amusing are known as eccentrics. I'm willing to be known as just a crank. I've practiced crankiness for years, hoping to be ready, on the off chance that I might actually live this long. As I prepare to graduate to more or less professional crank-hood, I offer three examples of my work. These have to do with abuse. Abuse of the English language.

No, I'm not one of those people who joyfully quote obscure rules governing the language. If you need to know the difference between a split infinitive and a past participle, don't ask me. I'm not licensed to teach grammar. In real life, I was a soldier, concentrating on totally different kinds of rules. But in that profession, clarity of communication was vital, and it was also good for a leader not to sound like a complete idiot when he or she spoke or wrote, which meant not violating the logic of the language. And, yes, I contend that, despite commonly accepted oddities, English mostly relies on common sense and logic. The following are three examples of violations of both, and they make me grit my well-worn teeth.

Modern young people, i.e., 18 to 60, have taken the simple word "so" and, instead of using it as a transition linking thoughts, ideas and such, as well as a few other commonly understood uses, have begun using it to mean absolutely nothing. I ask, "John, where did you go last weekend?" John: "So, we went to Atlanta." An interviewer on radio asked a social scientist about a study of the effect of modern pop music on the young. Response? "So, this study involved teenagers in 30 states," etc. It makes me want to smack these language abusers across the face, saying as I do, "So, as you sow, so shall you reap."

Oddly enough, in another case younger generations wrench a sensible expression into nonsense by using an archaic version of it. "Suffice to say," they proclaim, "that this winter weather is a killer." No, children, what you mean is, "Suffice it to say." It's a more convenient, less awkward way of saying, "Let it be sufficient to say…," or "The following comment is obviously enough of an explanation." Leaving out the "it" makes you sound as if you're choking in the middle of the expression. I'm not suggesting that I want you to choke, although the thought crosses my mind when I hear someone say, "Suffice to say."

And then there's the ever-popular use of "I" when "me" is required. "He left the house to my sister and I." Please! "My sister and me" is correct. A simple test is to run the sentence through your mind, if it's available, without the other person. If he'd left the house just to you, would you say, "He left the house to I?" If you would, then I'm sorry he included you in the will at all. He should have left the house to the brighter sibling, cutting you out of the will entirely for being too dense to be entrusted with half-ownership of a house.

If my cranky comments lead even one person to avoid these atrocities I've pointed out, I'll feel that my efforts have been worthwhile. Please take my corrections to heart. Don't make me have to repeat myself.

Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."

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