Thursday, January 27, 2011

Making Things Tic: A Codger's Ruminations on Literacy Today (and What the Lack Thereof Portends for Our Future)

Is Conor Friedersdorf intending to be cute with this coy use of the word "tic"--"What makes you tic, sir?"--or does he really not know how to spell the word "tick" (and that we commonly ask what makes things tick, not tic)?  If the latter, then I'm baffled.  I'm increasingly baffled by the shaky literacy of graduates of  even elite universities these days.  I've just read a novel by an English writer who's a graduate of New College, Oxford, and a former Conservative MP, who appears not to know that the case of the pronoun "whoever" is governed by its use in the clause in which it appears, and not by the preposition or verb setting the clause into motion.

So, "He told whomever was in the room his secret" is not correct, while, "He told whoever was in the room his secret" is correct.  And when I read sentences like this with increasing and depressing frequency in pieces written by highly educated English speakers these days, I have to wonder what's going on in our schools.

Do teachers no longer teach those basic rules/tricks of grammar that were pounded into the heads of my generation by our junior-high school years?  E.g., "If you wonder whether a pronoun should be in the nominative or objective case in this phrase, ask yourself what an educated, literate person would normally say using just the preposition and the pronoun."

And so when I read a sentence in my statewide free paper this week, written by a journalist with a degree from a university in Virginia, which contains the following phrase, I immediately wonder what kind of teachers this professional writer had, if he can write the following phrase and assume it's correct English: "insults traded by he and his date."  This in a piece criticizing the quality of another journalist's writing!

Did no one ever teach this college-educated journalist to stop and ask if he'd say "by he," if he were using the preposition and pronoun alone?  Would those who glibly talk about "going with Paula and I" say "going with I," if the "Paula and" got stripped from their sentence?

For that matter, does anyone even teach students any longer that there are nominative and objective cases for pronouns?  Or that there are pronouns and prepositions?  Or that thinking about how we use language is a preliminary to thinking, period--since we can't think carefully when we don't speak or use words carefully?  Or that diagramming a sentence helps us to identify the parts of speech and see how they function in a sentence?

Or are these considerations hopelessly out of date?  And, if so, should old fogies like me who continue to be moved by them simply find some way to live out our final years in somewhat literate space apart from society at large, surrounding ourselves with classics written by people who used to know how language works, and to care how it's put together--and about the ideas that can result when we think carefully about what we say, about how we use language, and about what words and the ideas they clothe really mean?

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