Missing grade-school English teachers
Ah, those younger generations. So spry. So attractive. So positive. So presentable.
And then they open their mouths. Out come the equivalents of chalk screeching across a blackboard.
“Me and him, we went to the movies.”
“He has less people working for him.”
‘She’s reverting back to the same mistakes she used to make.”
“Learn me how to paint.”
“Where is he at?”
And similar atrocities. So many of them. Too many of them.
We oldies (not “us oldies!”) are the last generation to remember rotary dial phones, soda fountains and milkmen. Alas, we might also be the last generation to speak and write English correctly.
Maybe you were as lucky as I was — to have an eighth-grade English teacher who never tired of diagramming sentences, and who positively delighted in the distinction between who and whom.
“I am your English teacher, to whom you must pay attention,” she would announce, at least once a week. “You are my students, who will pay attention.”
She was also a big believer in practice. To cement in our pea brains the difference between “effect” and “affect,” she would have us use each of those words in a sentence.
“Robert,” she would say to me, “can you effect a change in the room temperature by opening a window?”
“Yes, Miss Slipper,” I would reply.
“And can you affect the room temperature by opening the window, Robert?”
“Yes again, Miss Slipper,” I would reply.
“Very good,” she would say. “You are a student to whom all praise is due.”
This colloquy must have happened half a million times. Then, we groaned. Today, it’s obvious that the lessons stuck.
Such distinctions are chomped up and spit out in the modern era, almost willfully ignored. In many circles, it isn’t cool to speak English precisely. It marks you as a nerd, a dullard, an outcast. Even professional writers don’t seem to care about gerunds, dangling modifiers or run-on sentences.
As usual, the villain is television. Before it took over the American living room and the American consciousness, proper English could be found in two places: books and radio.
Have a look at novels published in the 1950s. They wouldn’t dare end a sentence with a preposition, or fumble it’s and its.
As for radio, it was a cathedral of propriety. Yes, the announcers were almost all Caucasian. Yes, they were almost all male. But to hear a Clifton Fadiman or an Art Linkletter delight in each syllable of “onomatopoeia” was to do three things simultaneously.
One, leap for the nearest dictionary.
Two, bet your bratty brother that he didn’t know what that word means.
Three, relish the fact that proper English can be fun. It’s not just about fusty, musty rules.
Close your eyes and hear with me — once again — the sculpted vowels of Orson Welles or Angela Lansbury. For them, and for us as the audience, English was to be treasured — buffed as if it were Grandma’s best candelabra.
Yes, of course, Jimmy Durante and Edward G. Robinson made careers out of mangling the mother tongue. But the vast majority of us knew that these fellows were mangling it for effect.
The real deal was Douglas Edwards reciting the news each weekday evening on CBS. Carefully, precisely, flawlessly, as if he were afraid that a teacher of his from long ago would rap his knuckles with a ruler if he ended a sentence with a preposition.
Or how about Betty White as “the Happy Homemaker” on the Mary Tyler Moore show? No slurring, no slang. Just a solid midwestern accent and adjectives where there should be adjectives, adverbs where there should be adverbs.
I know I’ve painted with too broad a brush. Today’s young people are not all butchers. My agemates are not all shining stars. Even the guy typing this will sometimes say “I was only late by five minutes,” instead of “I was late by only five minutes.”
But Miss Slipper (yes, that was her name) instilled in me great pride in doing it right, and great guilt whenever I do it wrong. Can today’s wordsmiths say either?
Bob Levey is a national award-winning columnist.