Monday, May 23, 2011

The Defender of The Language Returns To Bring Light To The Darkness Yet Again, For Someone Has To Do This Important Work. (Nance Has To Find Time To Take Care Of The Cattens, Too, After All!)

It is that time again, Dear Readers.  The Defender of The Language is back to...well, defend The Language!  In a world where poor grammar never ceases; where incorrect apostrophe usage is still, sadly, not an offense punishable by death or at least imprisonment (or hefty fine); where slack speech and mediocre writing are deemed acceptable and past redemption, the Defender can never rest.  She commandeers this space to bring light to the darkness for Dept. of Nance readers in particular.  Let's first take a query from RD, a sporadic Dept. commenter.  He's not forthcoming about his residential region, so I'll just assign him one.  RD, you're calling Intercourse, Pennsylvania, home.

Defender, could you comment on the (mis)use of "there's"? I hear it frequently these days, by both the well and poorly educated. "There's problems in Wisconsin these days." Or "There's things we'll never understand." It's driving me insane!
RD, I hear you.  As I mentioned in my answer previously, the examples you provided are really two annoyances.  Allow me to address them separately.  The first one is a simple lack of subject-verb agreement.  The contraction there's stands for there is.  Because the word there is functioning as an expletive, or in simpler terms, a garbage word, it has no value in the sentence and is not its subject. You must look past the verb to find the substantive subject of the sentence, problems, which is plural. The verb must therefore be plural, are.  The same holds true in the second sentence, as you can see.

I'd like to speak to the more important issue at hand, however, and it is the use of the word there in the first place.  As I mentioned, it is an expletive, or a garbage word/dummy subject. It has absolutely no adverbial power of location in the sentence.  Is it showing where something is? No.  It simply delays the action and actor of the sentence.  Why employ it?  Would not the sentences be far more precise and tighter if they were said or written thusly:  Wisconsin has problems these days  and  We'll never understand some things?  Naturally, I would further edit and eliminate/replace the egregious "these days" and "some things" but we cannot tackle everything at once.

Next, we will hear from the similarly location-reticent Nancy, who I have now made a resident of Lady Lake, Florida.

Hello, Defender.  I would appreciate your explaining the rule of "was" and "were".  For example, which one of these sentences would be correct?

"She looked at me as though I WAS crazy."
"She looked at me as though I WERE crazy."

Hi, Nancy!  I haven't been to Florida in a very long time. You must be taking care of The Language there for me. In any case, let me help you with your concern, which deals with an old grammar chestnut we call the subjunctive mood.  This is really a holdover from the 14th century, but picky grammarians love to lord this over the hoi polloi from time to time.  Soon, it will go the way of whom and double-spacing after the period, but some of us will still cling to it for civility's sake.  Basically, the subjunctive mood governs the use of verb tenses (most commonly was or were) when the context of the sentence states or describes a hypothetical situation.  Many times, this sentence will contain a clause that begins with the words as if, as though, suppose, or wish.  Some tightly-wound grammar enthusiasts would argue incessantly the finer points of whether or not the hypothetical might, in fact, be possible or might at one point come true, and whether or not that might change the subjunctive into the indicative mood, but life is too short for all of that, even for a Defender of The Language.  For a more exhaustive--yawn!--discussion of this vast topic, click here.  Because your example sentences include the adverbial subordinating conjunction as if, the subjunctive mood is called for, and you would use the verb were.

Finally, we come to this question from another Dept. reader.  Since it was submitted via email, I must again guess at geographical location.  So, let's hear from Deb, whose hometown is Gallipolis, Ohio.

Dear Defender, I am a middle school English teacher who is ready to throw in the red pen.  I mean, where do I start?  Students who eschew commas entirely, students who use apostrophes for plurals, and students who cannot tell the difference among there, their, and they're.  I am in pain every time I grade an essay.  If there were one single error you could choose to stamp out in "tween" writing, what would it be?

First of all, Dear Deb, thank you for your service.  As a teacher of English, you are a Guardian of The Language as well, and serving under sometimes the direst of circumstances.  On to your question.  I think an example of the most hurtful middle school error would have to be this:  If Justin Bieber would of cut his hair, he would still be cute.  Using of as a helping verb is such a continuing horror in middle school and high school writing that it has reached Domestic Terrorism status.  OF is not a verb, period. Ever.  This confusion is because of the contracted form of the helping verb have.  Students, and some adults, hear the 've as of and simply write the phonetic result.  The logic of what the word of is and does is lost, perhaps in laziness or disinterest, perhaps in something else.  Either way, it's discomfiting and disappointing.

As always, if you have a question or concern for the Defender of The Language, leave it in Comments or email Nance here at the Dept. of Nance by clicking the email link in the sidebar. Questions and issues will be addressed in the next column.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Saturday At Home: Some Gaming And Minimal Violence

Scene opens in living room. Rick is sitting on  the couch, in Cable Television Coma, watching a reality television show in which various drunken southerners are hauled into a drunk tank and then before a judge.  Nance is sitting in her bigass leather easy chair, playing Snood and waiting for her rhubarb crisp to be done in the oven.

Announcer's Voice:  (from television commercial)...some of the finest power punchers from the MMA ever assembled!
Nance:  As soon as I retire, I have to begin a strict training regimen, you know, because that's what I'm going to pursue as my second career.
Rick:  What?  The MMA?
Nance:  Well, yes.  As a power puncher, though.  At first, I thought I would be a submission fighter, but then I thought, "Well, hey.  After thirty years in public education, you know, Been There, Done That." 
Rick:  I hear you.
Nance:  I mean, teaching is nothing but endurance and beating them into submission.  Now, I want the quick hit.  The One-Off-And-It's-Over.  You know?
Rick:  Hey, I support you no matter what.  You know that.
Nance:  Good to know.

End scene.
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