Thursday, May 25, 2006

Deliver Us from Complacent Language Pomposities from the English-Only Crowd

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Empowerment through English
By Jeff Jacoby, Globe Columnist May 25, 2006

A READER 'responds to an animadversion of mine against affirmative action by e-mailing me President Lyndon Johnson's famous argument in favor of racial preferences: ''You do not take a person who for years has been hobbled by chains, liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race, and then say, 'You are free to compete with all the others,' and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.''

Mr. Jacoby, who has made an appearance in Grammargrinch before, starts his essay by using “animadversion.” He summons this flossy word to alert the world that he is an English-language savant and worthy to criticize poor Mexicans’ lack of facility in the language on which Mr. Jacoby preens Olympian knowledge.

I don't know what that stray apostrophe after "Reader" means to Mr. Jacoby.

It is a column about the English language, which has always been indispensable to the American identity, and without which no citizen can fully participate in American life.

Le Jacoby falls into the most frequent punctuation error of newspaper writers: redundant commas. Jacoby plops a redundant comma between two dependent adjectival clauses modifying “language.”

Racist! As if Americans who speak Spanish aren't as capable of learning English as any other linguistic minority. As if it is bigoted and mean-spirited to want all Americans to be able to follow their nation's political debates, read its founding documents, and take part in its civic life. Racist to embrace English as the common American tongue!

Here the master of English commits three grammar felonies in the language in which he advertises his mastery: fragments. Students in remedial English classes conquer fragments before they move on to more challenging errors. Mexicans can best fragments in a shorter period than the lifetime Mr. Jacoby has had to learn to avoid them but still messes up.

Jacoby endorses a double standard for mastery of English. As born American, he claims his pass on ignorant abuse of English despite his college education and professional-writer status. But he preaches against any latitude for field-hand immigrants.

''One television ad featured pictures showing 'Official English' signs and a voice warning, 'It always begins like this,'.'' Linda Chavez, who supported the initiative, later recalled.

"This,'." should be "this," before "Linda Chavez."

Jacoby doesn’t know punctuation protocol of other marks of punctuation in relation to quotation marks. One supposes immigrants would not get a pass in this area either. Jacoby quotes the all-purpose Republican Aunt Tom Linda Chavez, ever ready to betray her race, to buttress his language bigotry.

… but that actually understated the level of public support.
The only reason English was never formally denoted the national language before now is that it was generally considered too obvious to need mentioning.

Jacoby says nothing of immigrants’ style in using English. His is clumsy, loaded with redundant adverbs throughout. Strunk & White, Master Jacoby’s style book in freshman English, warns against this practice.

Some years ago John Silber, who was then the president of Boston University, told a congressional committee about his father, who had immigrated from Germany in 1903 to work as a sculptor at the St. Louis World's Fair. After the fair closed, he went to look for work, and saw a building with a sign reading ''Undertaker.''

“Emigrated, ” not "immigrated," is the word in this context. The spell checker flags his error. But Jacoby is so confident of his mastery of language that he doesn’t use the spell checker or know what it means if he does. One supposes immigrants learn the difference between “emigrate” and “immigrate” fast. After they emigrate across the border, under the fence, and across the desert, often perishing from thirst, they are immigrants. They are illegal immigrants but immigrants all the same.

But this jingoistic huffing-and-puffing newspaper columnist does not have to know the difference: he won’t crawl under a fence to do stoop labor to send money back to his family in Mexico so that its members won’t starve. Of course Jacoby uses another redundant comma between compound verbs. This is perquisite for a bloviating columnist--bestrewing redundant commas with a hey nonny nonny.

Jacoby's ignorance of English results in his mauling our language while deploring the English of immigrants. He lives in a country where English gets beat up by native Americans—especially pompous windbags who write newspaper columns.

I’d love to grade the essays of the English-only bigots in the House and Senate. The results would get them deported if we applied Jacoby’s exalted standards to them—and him.

We could round up a language posse to rustle them to the border, push them across as emigrants, and wave bye-bye, trilling, "Goodbye, immigrants. Get cracking on learning the subjunctive mood in Spanish. You must speak the language of Cervantes with precision."


Blogger Matt said...

"One television ad featured pictures showing 'Official English' signs and a voice warning, 'It always begins like this,'." Linda Chavez, who supported the initiative, later recalled.

"This,'." should be "this," before "Linda Chavez."

Rubbish. If that were the case there would be a single quotation mark before It without another one enclosing the quoted warning.

I'm only here because I read your letter on the National Punctuation Day website:

"Write an error-free letter to a friend, then take a nap."

Master Jeff: Reporter Morgan of the Tampa Tribune cites the above as your writing. You would have more credibility as guru of Punctuation Day if you put a semicolon after "friend." "Then" is a conjunctive adverb. You could have used a period and then began a new sentence. But the comma you use puts you in the dog-pookie of a comma splice. A comma splice is a grammar-punctuation felony. ... I taught English for 28 years. I know this stuff cold, so don't try to best me. I will mop up the floor with you. I bet you miss possessive-before-gerund every time it pops up in your line of vision.

Lee Drury

Here's my reply:

Dear Jeff,

I refer to Lee Drury's letter that outlines your alleged incorrect use of "then" as a conjunctive adverb.

Conjunctive adverbs are, technically speaking, those words that are in the same form as the interrogative adverbs; however, instead of asking questions they join clauses.

(The antecedent understood.)
This is where we dwell.
Let me know when you will come.

(The antecedent expressed.)
This is the place where we dwell.
Let me know the time when you will come.

See? They're partly adverbs and partly conjunctions. Conjunctive adverbs. Easy.

The part of speech to which Lee Drury refers used to be called an illative conjunction but the definitions are now botched up nicely and "conjunctive adverb" now includes all those words such as moreover, therefore, however and nonetheless.

Anyway, sometimes "so" is used as (what Lee calls) a conjunctive adverb; sometimes it is used as a subordinating conjunction.

When "so" means "in order that", it is a subordinating conjunction.

I taught English for 28 years in order that I could pay my bills.

I taught English for 28 years so I could pay my bills.

When "so" means "therefore", it is a conjunctive adverb.

I taught English for 28 years; therefore, don't try to best me.

I taught English for 28 years; so don't try to best me.

(No comma is required after "so" when it used as a conjunctive adverb.)

Consider the difference between the following:

I taught English for 28 years so I will always be right. (so = in order that)

I taught English for 28 years; so I will always be right. (so = therefore)

Unfortunately, Lee Drury did a bit of comma splicing, too. I hope that he is as competent at mopping the egg off his face as he is at mopping floors.

Keep up the good work!

P.S. I am guessing that you now know what a gerund is and that my explaining it would be unnecessary.

I apologise for assuming that "Lee" was the name of a male. What is your justification for not using a semicolon before "so" when you had just slammed Jeff for not doing so (allegedly) before "then"?

7:22 PM  
Blogger Matt said...

By the way, have you ever seen this bit in Strunk and White?

Note that if the second clause is preceded by an adverb, such as accordingly, besides, so, then, therefore, or thus, and not by a conjunction, the semicolon is still required.

I had never been in the place before; so I had difficulty in finding my way about.

Maybe others will start dumping their Strunk-and-White-offending redundant adverbs after you have finished reading the book and learned how to use a semicolon.

4:22 AM  

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