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Grammar police on duty 24/7

November 26, 2008 - Betsy Bethel
When I was growing up, speaking and writing properly wasn't something we learned only in school. Grammar, vocabulary and spelling lessons were intertwined with our everyday conversations at home.

I can't tell you how many times I heard my mother reply, "Look it up," when I asked her the definition or spelling of a word. If I had a nickel for every time she said, "She and I went to the mall," to correct my statement, "Me and her went to the mall," I could buy my own dictionary publishing house.

I can still hear her voice admonishing me for my abuse of verb tenses or for so rudely leaving a preposition hanging at the end of a sentence.

My mother came by her grammar police duties honestly. Her mother, Jean Garrett (a.k.a. Gram), was a stickler (with a capital "s") for grammar. Our "where at"s and "how come"s were corrected on the spot, accompanied with a look of horror and disgust as if we had just spoken the foulest of curse words. Gram valued the language because her mother, a one-room schoolhouse teacher, emphasized it with her.

Believe me, it never even occurred to us kids to utter "yunz" or "ain't: -- the words would have been like knives in our elders' backs! I didn't even do it while out of earshot. Remember the game, "Step on a crack, break your mother's back"? Well, I feared for my mother's life if I spoke improperly.

My mother and grandmother also cultivated in me a love of books from a very young age. They read to me, and I received books, it seemed, for every holiday and birthday. My mother has continued that tradition with the grandchildren, presenting them with books during every visit. And I continue to fight the good fight, guiding Emma toward proper use of our native tongue. Yes, she's only 2, but when better to learn?

I think of the word "vigilant" when I consider how my family feels about nourishing its offsprings' relationship with the English language. You cannot let down your guard. A day during which more time is spent watching television than reading is a battle lost; a "where at" left uncorrected is a casualty.

Speaking properly might not feed the hungry or lead to world peace, but it can't hurt. Then again, maybe it DOES help. When negotiating a peace treaty, wouldn't it be better to have Americans who can communicate well rather than ones who don't know the difference between patriate and patriot? And where would the soup kitchens and aid agencies be without people who know how to write grants and support letters to convince the powers-that-be to donate money?

Some people may accuse me of being a nag and a snob. But I'd rather be called names than have my child grow up not knowing how to speak her own language.


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