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I’ve been shouting at CBC again. I think it was at the voice announcing that “as of yet” an official Canadian response had not been made to what was “almost total decimation” in some unhappy part of the world.
The cats shot under the kitchen table when, spraying Bran Buds, I yelled: “It’s just ‘YET,’ idiot!” and: “Come on, 10 per cent isn’t devastation!”
This has to stop. I realize now that my years as a high-school teacher of English have left me with a disease that will burden me till death. Every little misused apostrophe, dangling participle, “may” instead of “might,” “less” instead of “fewer,” “flout” instead of “flaunt” flames out at me and I have to douse the fire.
That was my job, of course, for 27 years. Early on, I had practised smiling affably when, over drinks at a party, a new acquaintance learning that I taught English would simper: “Well now, I guess I’ll have to watch my grammar.”
I thought at the time this was a social blunder on a par with asking an orthopedic surgeon you’ve just met for his opinions on that nagging pain in your ischial tuberosities, but it turns out the woman was right. With me you do have to watch it.
I liked teaching – not only literature, but also the felicities and consistent inconsistencies of the English language. Not a lot of time was spent on linguistic pedantry; I can recall, for instance, a rap version of Oedipus Rex, and a noisy student altercation on the moral character of Richard III.
Precision, however, was expected and corrections had to be made, errors analyzed and discussed. The kids were tolerant and willing, if sometimes bewildered by the flurry of arthritic scribbles in the margins of their essays.
One student, I remember, came back with a paper I had generously and hastily annotated.
“What did I do so wrong?”
“Oh, it’s not really so bad, but you’ve shifted tenses all the way. Look – here and here and here – everywhere I’ve noted ‘Shift.’ ”
“Oh, it’s ‘Shift’ you’ve written. I thought …”
We both laughed. Still, he went away with a keener appreciation of the use of the historical present tense.
There is some evidence that I have infected generations. A former student now working in a police station in California tells me that for years she has been designated the incumbent “grammar police,” and all incident reports have to go under her scrutiny. “Hanged himself,” for example, must replace “hung himself.”
Another, an Alberta Public Works official, once told me that his prudent removal of a comma placed before a restrictive clause saved the province several thousand contract dollars.
So, the disease is not all bad – but it does produce blindness. As part of my professional duty I was expected to help mark provincial examinations, and at one point was assigned to the Techniques Team. This was a long time ago, when language expectations were more constipated, and the team’s task was simply to read each student paper for spelling and syntactic errors, taking off marks up to a certain total. Easy. But at the end of one day of this, I got home and immediately deducted 13 points from my mother’s weekly letter from Scotland before learning that there had been a fire in her back kitchen.
I would have expected this urge to defend the language to dwindle with my retirement. I once laughed at the establishment of the Apostrophe Protection Association; now I am thinking of registering.
The trouble is that every aspect of my otherwise temperate life is still dogged by this accursed compulsion to wield the red pen.
When I go to the Edmonton Opera, I sit in a row carefully chosen so that I’ll have to tilt my head to read the surtitles. This way if I carefully maintain a rigid neck position I can avoid seeing not only the banalities of the English libretto translations, but also the occasional wrong “it’s” for “its.”
My civic duties are also impaired. At an election forum for candidates for the Edmonton Public School Board, I was sitting, list of names on my knee, and quietly striking out those whose language seemed to me inept enough to disqualify them from trusteeship. A man behind me finally tapped me on the shoulder and whispered: “Lady, you’re gonna have none left.”
On my daily walks around my pleasant suburb I find myself crossing to the opposite sidewalk on 75th Avenue so that I won’t have to look at that neat cedar sign in front of “The Wilson’s.”
Safeway is a constant fruitful source of what has been called the “greengrocers’ apostrophe.” I have been known to interrogate a stacker of “melon’s” on what it is that the melon possesses. He sees me coming now and moves over to Organics.
It is too late for me to accept that English is a mongrel language with all the accompanying mongrel vigour, growth and flexibility. So, I salute the final gesture of a good old friend, a fellow teacher and a lover of words, who died recently. Not many days before the end, he was being examined yet again by one of a series of doctors.
“Now, just lay back there, sir, and we’ll …”
A last summoning of energy and the retort: “LIE back!”
Way to go.
June Menzies lives in Edmonton.
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