Todays lecture, ladies and gentlemen, will begin with a short test.
Read the following sentence carefully.
One of the many excuses cited by the losing players were poor relief pitching, a factor recognized not only by the relief pitchers themselves but by the fans, the sports writers, and everyone else
but the front office management.
Did you catch the grammatical error? The sentence should have read, One of the many excuses... WAS poor relief pitching....
If you failed this test and are feeling sheepish about it, youll feel even more sheepish when you learn that the error was spotted instantly by a teenage visitor from Germany who found that
sentence in one of our newspapers. The error jumped right out at him.
Like most school children in Germany, he takes our language seriously. He had studied English for years and before arriving here he already spoke it and wrote it well. Yet one of his reasons for
visiting this country was, ironically, to improve his English.
In the past eight years, eight young foreign students have passed through our house, all of them wanting to improve their English. Did they succeed? Well, yes and no. By the end of the year they
certainly spoke faster; and their vocabularies certainly expanded. But in other ways some of them made long strides backward.
Their first mistake lay in their assumption that they would improve their English by imitating native English speakers, in this case Americans. The second was that the
speakers they imitated were among the worst models they could have found: their American contemporaries. So while they all brought with them from, say, Germany a sound command of English grammar
and vocabulary, within months they began sounding like American teenagers, which means they talked like this:
You know who Brandi was with last night? Like, youll never guess.
You dont mean she was with, like, Tony? No way.
Yeah. I saw them at the mall at, like, 7:30. It was like, totally awesome, and I was like, WOW. So I call her later, and I go, How long have you been with Tony? And she goes, About
a week. And I go, Tara must be really (insert the past participial form of the colloquial verb meaning to discharge urine). And she goes, Like how much do I care? And
Im like, WOW.
I think it was about 25 years ago when I first began hearing this kind of aberrant usage among young people, and I felt obligated to advise them as follows: If you want to be taken seriously by
intelligent, educated people, do not use go when you mean said, and do not sprinkle your utterances indiscriminately with like.
I was, of course, fighting an avalanche with a teaspoon. Eventually one could hear that kind of strange usage all over the country, and todaythose young people having grown upwe hear
it even among adults, even those said to be educated, including teachers and school administrators.
In one of my nightmares, it is the not-very-distant future and the President of the United States is reporting to the Cabinet on a recent meeting of the G-7 nations in Rome. So like Im
meeting with these guys, you know, the President says, and I go, You raise tariffs on American imports and youll, like, regret it. And they go, No way.
And I go, Try us! Like, make my day! And theyre like, wow.
In this nightmare, state legislators are talking and writing the same way. So are U.S senators and representatives and Supreme Court Justices and college professors and news reporters and columnists.
In this nightmare, people are as oblivious to the language they speak and hear as they are to the air they breathe. English, as our great writers knew it, is dead, and its great practitionersJefferson,
Hawthorne, Melville, Lincoln, Twain, Faulkner, et.al.all are whirling in their graves. Elegant communication has ceased but no one minds because no one is aware of the fact.
Ah, I see a member of the audience with her hand raised. Yes, Maamyou in the back row.
Q. Can anything be done to reverse this trend youve described? I mean, is there, like, no hope?
A. Lets just say I see little reason for optimism.
Q. So how would you advise an American who wants to improve his English?
A. Go to Germany.
TheScreamOnline regular Rob Woutat has contributed a wide variety of pieces to newspapers and magazines and to the National Public Radio affiliate
in Seattle/Tacoma. He has written two family histories and a memoir. Please check the Talent Index to see his other work.
He can be reached at rwoutat[AT]tscnet.com.
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