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Where grammar is concerned, it's not right to write the wrong word

June 08, 2008|By TIM ROWLAND

Anyone who traffics in words has a lot of grammatical, or is it grammerical pet peeves - but there is usually one misuse that really sets them off. I mean sets him off.

For me, it is the phrase "I feel badly," and here's why. It's because the people who use this phrase think they know more than you. They think by adding the ly to bad, it somehow demonstrates a rudimentary knowledge of adverbs that the common man lacks.

And true enough, you never hear the hungover guy at Wal-Mart say, "Dude, I feel badly."

Maybe we don't give Mr. Hangover Man enough credit. Maybe he just says "I feel bad" because he realizes that by saying "badly" he would in fact be modifying "feel" and give the impression that he has some sort of sensory malfunction in his fingertips and has difficutly reading Braille.

Curiously, no one ever makes the same mistake with "good." At least I've never heard anyone say, "I feel goodly."

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Of course when grammarticians - and, it seems, Washington County Commissioners - start bandying about the word "good," can the word "well" be far behind?

Commissioners Jim Kercheval and Kristin Alsehire recently enganged in a mild debate over the propriety of saying that a group of foreigners "spoke good English" as opposed to saying they "spoke English well."

Fresh out of school, I might have emphatically sided with Aleshire - and I would still go to the barricades with Aleshire had Kercheval said the foreigners "spoke English good." But "spoke good English?" Naw, I got worse problems.

Maybe I'm a sell-out. Maybe I've just given up. Maybe it's simply easier this way. But where the English language is concerned, I've learned that there is a right answer and a wrong answer to every question, and the truth usually lies somewhere in between.

Since I've started teaching an English class at Hagerstown Community College, my views on the language are a lot less militaristic. Part of it is practical; there is a finite amount of red ink produced in the world each year. Part of it is spiritual; it only took me one semester to learn that I needed to lighten up or die.

Keep in mind, a sizable number of these students have never heard of a dash, nor do they have any real working knowledge of a semicolon or hyphen. The idea of singular and plural agreement is greeted with the same degree of amazement as the Incas must have felt when encountering the Spaniards.

Sometimes they have a true gift for consistency. They will pick their, there or they're and then stick with it through the entire paper, regardless (or irregardless as they would have it, when the mood hits to use a four-syllable word - which is to say, not often) of the situation.

So teaching English these days is a bit like Jimmy V said about the NCAA basketball tournament: Survive and advance.

I'll still go to the wall over matters of who and whom, subject-verb agreement and the evils of from flitting from to tense to tense as if the pen was some sort of time machine.

But a split infinitive? Are you kidding? The production of one full sentence is victory enough, without taking time to explain the finer points of "like" versus "as if."

In the end, I always wind up learning more than the kids, and what I've learned is that the kids aren't always wrong. The only languages that don't change are dead languages.

And if thou don't believe that, go back and read something written by ye olde Founding Fathers. Yes, I'm sure back in the day, there was some grammar Nazi harping on everyone that "It's not 'yours,' dammit, it's 'thine,'" but consider how that worked out.

Things change. You can take my semicolon when you pry it from my cold, dead hands, but there's serious talk that it, along with the hyphen, is on its way to extinction.

The English language doesn't have any answer to the awkward, post-feminism necessity, if one is to be correct, of writing: "Each student is responsible for his or her own work." But some day it will probably be acceptable to write "...their own work."

Thirty years ago, a national battle erupted over the advertising slogan, "Winstons taste good like a cigarette should." Can anyone imagine that fight taking place today? Journalists may be the only ones clinging to the notion that there is some life-altering difference between "over" and "more than," "insure" and "ensure" and "historic" and "historical."

We fought the battle of "drunken driving" and lost, and I suspect we'll lose in our insistence that there are no such word as reoccur.

But if English has rules and those rules are always changing, or subject to merciless interpretation, what do we tell our kids?

In medicine, there is the oath, "First, do no harm." English has a similar rule that I pass on: "Don't make yourself look stupid."

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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