We all have our little obsessions, those events, people or things that provoke a passionate reaction in us, whether it’s reasonable or not.
For some it might be an unwavering devotion to a sports team that hasn’t won a championship in more than 40 years. For others it might be an intense zeal for shoes, purses or watches.
For me (although I can fall hard for a great pair of three-inch suede pumps), it’s grammar. Good grammar, to be precise.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not a perfectionist, a language snob or even a high-school teacher. I’m not too hung up on the proper use of semicolons and commas, or whether one should ever start a sentence with “and” or “but.” I am, however, a big fan of a spell-checked e-mail (it takes less than a minute!), a well-constructed sentence and, quite simply, the proper use of words.
While I’ve always been grammatically inclined, lately I’ve become even more sensitive toward the way people use (and misuse) the English language. I’ve started cringing whenever I hear an American sportscaster announce that a quarterback “played so good” this weekend. I shudder any time someone uses “irregardless” in a sentence (my husband, knowing how annoyed I get, uses it often just to spite me).
So what’s behind this recently heightened sensitivity to the dos and don’ts of proper English?
After giving it some thought, I can attribute these reactions to the fact that my kids are now avid speakers. At 5 and 3, they’re funny, surprising and remarkably articulate.
But as they learn new words, speak in longer sentences and talk about events from the past and wishes for the future, they (unsurprisingly) make mistakes with their words and tenses. And, like my parents before me, I correct my kids so they’ll grow into well-spoken adults.
Several times a day, I’ll hear phrases like “Ashley standed on the sink” (I know, there is more than one thing wrong with this sentence), or “I wented to school” or “I sawed it on TV.”
Diligently, and somewhat unconsciously, I calmly correct: “Ashley stood on the sink,” “I went to school” and “I saw it on TV.”
The problem is, I’m so deep in the grammar zone these days that when I hear adults make similar mistakes, I have to bite my tongue or walk away to keep from correcting them as well. Unfortunately, I’m not pulling this off with much skill, because my grammar-correcting tendencies have started to seep beyond the home and into my professional life as a marketer in the financial-services industry. And it’s getting embarrassing.
Recently, for example, I was at a brainstorming session with colleagues and external partners. The individual running the meeting was writing out some thoughts on a whiteboard when he stumbled on the spelling of a word. Totally unprovoked, squeaky marker suspended mid-stroke, he turned around and said, “Don’t judge me, Diane. I can see it in your eyes.”
Though I was mortified by the accusation (as lighthearted as it was), I had been mentally trying to help him spell the word. I wasn’t judging, but I was paying attention and, evidently, it was showing.
That meeting was a bit of a wakeup call. I’m no longer sure whether I should feel flattered when asked for spelling tips at the office, or if it’s just an indication that others see me as the word geek on the floor.
The thing is, “language improvement” is in my blood. As kids, my brother and I were constantly corrected when we spoke. It wasn’t in an argumentative or angry way, but between my conscientious father and my British-born grandmother, we were strictly trained in the “proper” way to speak.
We knew, for example, that we wouldn’t have a chance of getting that dish of ice cream after dinner unless we prefaced it with, “Please may I have …” (I’m convinced Grandma would be shocked and dismayed if she heard the way my kids ask for things today: “Chicken! Nuggets! Now!”)
Excessive use of “like,” “so” and “um” were also pounced upon and, over time, eased out of our vocabularies. In fact, my dad and grandma were so successful at instilling strong verbal acumen in us that I actually remember, in the fifth grade, feeling like I spoke too properly. I made efforts to dumb down my language so that I would speak like the other 10-year-olds in my class (as a result, “like” “so” and “um” were used frequently at school, away from my family’s keen ears).
But like many things that annoy us as children, I am thankful now that I can speak and write properly – even if I am a little particular about it.
As far as my kids go, the grammar correction is going well. They’re slowly absorbing some of the easier rules and (for now) they don’t seem to mind the constant chirp in their ear whenever they open their mouths.
It’s paying off. Just the other weekend, my son was congratulated by a well-meaning bystander on his improving hockey skills. “Eric, you skated so good today!” he was told with a tap on his helmet.
“No I didn’t,” he said to the confused hockey dad, who knows how much Eric relishes a compliment of any kind. “I skated so well.”
It was all I could do to keep from wiping a tear from my eye.
That’s my boy.
Diane Amato lives in Toronto.