Vagneur: On the subject of grammar
It’s a distant memory to me, but if you’ve been reading this column for long, you may remember that I was once the brash kid who was going to finish his bachelor’s degree in English literature in three years and move on to an eventual doctorate and a university job. I fancied myself a deep-thinking hero to college coeds, dashing in my herringbone tweed jacket and sophisticated-looking briar pipe. Obviously, that didn’t happen, and I’m fairly certain I don’t regret it.
A couple of things occurred to thwart my plans, one of them being a brick wall of a class titled “Advanced Grammar and Syntax.” Maybe it was a joke, but I didn’t think it very funny tucking such a required technical course into an otherwise reasonably free-thinking curriculum. Suffice it to say, I never was much on reasons why and didn’t really care if a verb was transitive or intransitive, although dangling participles drive me crazy, as do people who have a penchant for pointing out my grammatical errors.
This subject, the one about grammar, came up last spring at the Woody Creek Community Center as we discussed the big deal of graduation, either from high school or college. My friend Peg said, “Doesn’t it drive you crazy, people saying they ‘graduated high school’ or ‘graduated college’?”
Yes, as a matter of fact, it does drive me crazy. I thought perhaps I had missed some sea change in grammar evolution during my time in the hills, but on further reflection, it turns out such an idiosyncratic combination of words is grammatically incorrect. Is the cause laziness — is it too much trouble to inject the word “from” between “graduate” and “high school,” as in “graduate from high school” or any other such institution? The sad part, I reckon, is that graduates of high schools, colleges and universities across the nation are using poor grammar when they fail to use the word “from” in their graduation declarations. The English teachers at those places must be more than a little embarrassed.
Forgive me for adding this paragraph, but to be technical, when you say “graduated high school” instead of “graduated from high school,” you are inadvertently turning the verb “to graduate” into a transitive verb, which essentially means that you did something to the high school, i.e., you “graduated” it, forgetting that graduation is an act the school does to the student, not the other way around. Ah, the beauty of grammar and syntax. There were some things you probably wanted to do to your school, maybe even to some of the teachers, but that’s another subject for another time.
By the way, if you’re tired of this exciting stuff, listen to this: The other day, while watching a couple of people hang paintings in an art gallery, struggling to get the symbiosis and alignment between works just right, one of them said to the other, “I measured it exactly. It’s close to an inch.”
Moving on, let me say that, as have many of you, I memorized most of what could be termed proper grammar, just as our vocabulary is a memorized list of words we use. It’s always a surprise to my equilibrium when I see or hear something from someone’s list of jargon that I’ve never encountered before. It’s kind of like playing Scrabble with an overly creative person — “Where the hell did you get that word?”
Doesn’t the word “incentivize” just send a shiver of incredulity up your spine? Although, excuse me, there is no such word as “incentivize.” The “official” line has it that back in the day (1960s), utterance-challenged businessmen started using this creation as a lazy man’s way of dealing with the idea of motivation, although I have to say that in my many years of working with an international Fortune 500 company, I never heard such a poorly devised fabrication uttered. Personally, I think consultants and government staffers like to use it in an attempt to impress their listeners. Mistake — its use does the opposite of impressing. Don’t tell me; I know — if you check the online version of the Merriam-Webster dictionary or even The Free Dictionary, you can find “incentivize” listed, but you can find a lot of things on the Internet you shouldn’t be looking at — at least not on company time.
Now that I’ve insulted, bored or otherwise entertained you, let us remember that language is an evolving method of communication that changes over time, but while we wait, maybe we should try a little harder to honor the standards of usage that make our tongue understandable to others.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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