From the Crow's Nest / Ed Chrostowski
Abusing English language can have costly outcomes
Published 1:05 am, Thursday, June 3, 2010
From time to time, assimilation of immigrants enters conversation somewhere in the country and there soon arises a great hue and cry about making English the official language of the United States.
Well, that might be OK. But first we native born and bred Americans need to learn how to use it properly ourselves. Maybe night classes in English as a first language would be a good idea.
Certainly an overly casual approach to grammar and vocabulary can lead people to "misspeak" with devastating effects as Dick Blumenthal, Democratic designee for the U.S. Senate, has recently learned much to his dismay. It is all the more disappointing because Blumenthal, as an estimable attorney, would be expected to be more fully aware of the importance of meticulous grammar and precise verbiage.
Alas, he said he served in Vietnam when he should have said he was in the military during the Vietnam War or that he served in the Vietnam era. Whether it was intentional is anybody's guess, but the feeling here is that it was just a bit of careless phraseology. Perhaps he just yielded to the politicians' natural urge to embellish their records.
At any rate, given his long and all but impeccable record of public service, Blumenthal has not been irreparably damaged and his election chances remain solid. The state commander of the VFW has self-righteously refused to accept Blumenthal's apology, but most people realize Blumenthal did not intend to deceive mislead anybody or to demean the service of those who actually were in Vietnam's battlefields.
That much became apparent when The New York Times broke part of the Blumenthal story -- only that part of a speech in which he committed his gaffe, not the introductory part in which he plainly stated for the umpteenth time that he had been a sergeant in the Marine Corps Reserve during the Vietnam era.
Ironically, a couple of days later, the Times itself misspoke, hoist by its own petard, one might say. The newspaper commented that BP engineers were working "furiously" on the big oil spill. Furiously? Well, maybe they are angry, but frantically is probably a more apt adverb. So much for the self-styled citadel of linguistic integrity.
Failure to pay closer attention to language also proved embarrassing to the Tea Party's Randy Pail in his unfortunate comments on the Civil Rights Act. Then, too, there was Susan Bysiewicz who insisted that because she is an attorney and as secretary of the state had become expert in election laws, she was qualified for the office of attorney general. She took her case to the Connecticut Supreme Court and was miffed when the justices decided unanimously against her.
Clearly, the State Constitution says one has to have actively practiced law for a decade to be eligible. Bysiewicz has not. By her reasoning, a CPA who is thoroughly versed in tax law would be eligible. Reading and understanding the language would have saved everybody a lot of trouble.
Therein lies another cardinal sin that rankles grammar purists. How many people would say "would of" when they mean "would have" or even just "would've?" And it's just aggravating to hear or read phrases like "a couple people." Shouldn't it be "a couple of people?" After all, we don't say "a team horses" or "a brace oxen." It's irritating also to read in newspapers, supposedly the first line of public exposure to proper language, that something occurred "from 1950-60." Read it aloud. How dopey does that sound? From 1950 to 1960 makes more sense. It takes only a couple of extra keyboard strokes and doesn't really use up too much space. And in news reports of accidents, we frequently read "the car lost control." Really? Or was it the driver?
The point is that the language is abused and one hesitates to complain because few of us are innocent enough to cast stones.
"Dizzy" Dean, the great baseball pitcher of yore, offers a case in point. He became a broadcaster when his playing career ended and once described a base-runner as safe because he "slud" in before the tag. An English teacher, highly incensed, scolded him for ignoring proper syntax. "Gosh," he retorted, "I didn't know them fellers in Washington put a tax on that too."