Careful Language

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One of the most popular presents for high school graduates heading off to college is the book, “The Elements of Style,” by Strunk and White. The book is not about fashion. It’s about writing. Its popularity suggests that many people feel that good writing is important. But in fast-paced American culture, few people are able – or willing – to settle down and master the ins and outs of clear communication. Learning to write well is a bit like learning to play piano. It’s slow, meticulous work. You need to learn about subjects and verbs, just like you need to learn scales and chords for the piano.

I was fortunate to have English teachers who stressed the basics of good writing. They even taught me what is now virtually a lost art – diagramming sentences. After working as a newspaper reporter and editor, I too became a teacher. Some of my students were Germans training to become teachers of English in German schools. They demanded rules and explanations for everything – things such as whether it’s possible to use progressive aspect with a past perfect verb.

Northern Europeans may, in fact, be the world’s biggest sticklers when it comes to grammar. The Danes have been fighting a “kommakrigen,” or “comma war,” ever since the Language Committee of the Danish Ministry of Culture presented a new comma punctuation system in 1996. The new system directs writers to insert a comma wherever they would naturally pause if speaking the sentence. The old system, based on strict grammar rules going back to the nineteenth century, dictated commas at specific syntactical points in a sentence, such as before and after a dependent clause.

I was amused last month in reading two different reporters’ accounts of Vermont legislators’ spirited remarks during the late Saturday night session on reapportionment. Senator Richard Sears of Bennington was quoted by the Rutland Herald as saying, “We’re all going to court or none of us IS going to court.” The Burlington Free Press, however, reported the same remark by Sears as, “We’re all going to court, or none of us ARE going to court.” Either one reporter quoted Sears incorrectly, or one reporter thought he’d correct what sounded like a mistake. Senator Sears says he frankly can’t remember what he said.

And of course a modal auxiliary verb, “shall,” forced the Legislature to return to Montpelier in late June for a quick rump session. “Shall” is a tricky word. Used correctly, it packs a wallop. General McArthur, for example, was careful to say, “I shall return,” as he left Corregidor in the Phillippines during World War II.

If you’re a student and you’ve got a Strunk and White in your trunk or duffel bag as you head off to college, crack open the slim volume when you’ve got a few moments. Who knows, someday you may be in the Legislature, or lead an army, and you’ll need to make your points clearly and precisely. None of us is likely to be a Danish linguist, though, so you can probably skip the section on commas.

This is Allen Gilbert.

Allen Gilbert of Worcester is a writer and parent who is active in education issues. And in case you’re wondering, the correct wording should be: “none of us IS going”.

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