Last Writes

Richard Lederer‘s Lantern of Diogenes illuminates proper usage

Diogenes (412?-323 BCE) of Sinope was an ancient Greek philosopher who rejected the hollow values he saw in Athenian society. One sign of that integrity was his practice of carrying a lantern around Athens in the daytime as he looked for an honest man. He never found one.

I come to you bearing the lantern of language learning. I am pleased to report that, more successfully than Diogenes, I do find men and women, many of them readers of my column, who:

* say and write “Where is he?” without tacking on a gratuitous at;
* distinguish between the verbs lie and lay, avoiding sentences such as “The book is laying on the table”;
* after someone says, “Thank you,” actually reply, “You’re welcome,” instead of “No problem”;
* in their speech, keep their ughs and ums to a minimum and avoid hiccoughing you knows;
* never toss a like into their conversation unless it’s a verb — “I like you on Facebook” — or a preposition — “There’s no other city like San Diego”;
* know the past tense of the word go as went and the perfect tense as gone, thus averting atrocities like “I should have went to the mud-wrestling extravaganza”;
* answer questions in 25 words or fewer, rather than 25 words or less, and recoil at supermarket signs that broadcast “15 items or less”;
* display house signs that read The Smiths or The Smiths’, but never The Smith’s;
* never talk about “an historic occasion”;
* pronounce the words nuclear, Realtor, and jewelry without transposing syllables, as in nucular, Relator and jewlery;
* sound both rs in library, forward, formerly, and even February;
* do not speak French-fried English with overly Frenchified pronunciations such as fwah-YAY, for-TAY, aneesh, and Bei-zhing.
* don’t dangle their particles in public by miscreating sentences like “We saw many bears driving through Yellowstone Park”;
* don’t hypercorrect their pronouns, as in “Between you and I, whom do you think will win the mud-wrestling championship?”;
* don’t employ affect as a noun unless they are psychiatrists or psychologists;
* use the serial comma, as in “red, white, and blue,” and place a comma before a direct address, as in “Hi, Gene,” rather than “Hi Gene”;
* can write and read cursive;
* go right ahead and introduce Jimmy Jones and thank Sally Smith, rather than hedging with “I’d like to introduce Jimmy Jones” and “I want to thank Sally Smith”;
* can read a book for hours at a time and enter the lives of the people who live and move and have their being in the story or glean the knowledge so eagerly offered;
* engage in literate conversation at family meals;
* provide their children with books and a place in the home to study and read;
* do not shy away from advising their children about their grammar;
* respect all dialects but urge that every American become fluent in standard English.
Are you one of these men or women?

Richard Lederer, MAT English and education, PhD linguistics, is the author of more than 40 books on language, history, and humor. This excerpt is from his latest book, Amazing Words, a career-capping anthology of bedazzling, beguiling, and bewitching words, available now at his website —