The cowardly curmudgeon

Back in the previous century, I spent several years teaching composition to college students. The official party line of English departments in those days was a confused picture of traditional, hard core standards and a laissez faire approach to writing as creative outlet.

I taught at three different schools, one community college, Clemson University, and Auburn University. All three had a set of approved standards that students–and their instructors–had to observe in written assignments. Most were taken from the Harbrace Handbook, and instructors were expected to cite chapter and verse when marking papers. As I recall, each grammatical and usage rule had an assigned point value indicating the demerits to be charged against the work’s score in determining the grade.

At the same time, the professional literature–and the wheedling of senior faculty assigned to ride herd over the instructor corps–insisted writing was a personal creative act that should be encouraged. The underlying message was that counting off for grammar and spelling interfered with the development of the educated person.

I’m oversimplifying, but the end result was a highly conflicted bunch of instructors and students. I’m sure many adults who went through school in those years still struggle whether it’s okay to begin a sentence with “and” (my answer: yes; in fact, it was never forbidden by Harbrace).

Years later, I’m still a bit conflicted. I recognize that language is an organic, growing thing, so I try not to notice when writers make what I believe to be errors. But I do notice. And it bothers me.

So when I hear or read things like “the storm decimated the town,” I can’t help screaming inwardly, “do you mean ‘devastated’ or did the storm really wipe out just 10 percent of the town?”

Changing language or not, I cannot accept that the brutal Roman origins of decimate should be allowed to fade into history. [For those who don’t know, decimation refers to a technique of military discipline in which one in ten soldiers was executed to punish a breach of the rules by a member of the company.]

To my rigidly schooled mind, it’s equivalent to placing a decimal (same root) at random in a number and claiming that all the versions mean the same thing. For instance, $10.00 would be the same as $100.0, $1.000 or $1000 in this loosey-goosey world. To paraphrase Churchill, there are some things up with which I shall not put.

I have a similarly rigid view of the distinction between its and it’s, although I confess my certainty has been sorely challenged of late. From time immemorial, I used to tell my students, it’s been easy to tell the difference. No educated person should have a problem keeping them straight. You are showing yourself to be a common ignoramus when you mix them up.

Then I read a book on Lewis and Clark’s expedition. The book includes direct quotes of correspondence among all the principals, including Thomas Jefferson, whose academic and literary credentials certainly trump mine. Almost without exception, the writers (yes, even Jefferson himself) wrote it’s when my mind screams they should have used its.

So I’m trying to learn a little more tolerance. I’m glad I’m not teaching English anymore.



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