George Bernard Shaw (the screenwriter for My Fair Lady and from whom the ancient Greeks derived their myth of Pygmalion) had a deep and abiding love of the English language. That love was so intense, so incendiary, that upon his death he wished to be buried in nothing but words. (Needless to say, this was somewhat embarrassing for those who attended his funeral. Words, while certainly useful and important, are also what scientists have termed “transparent.” As such, the mourners at Shaw’s funeral were treated to a rare glimpse of the playwright’s dangling participle.)
Shaw’s love affair with the English language was so strong that it continued even after his death. In his will he left a legacy with which the English language could be purified, standardized and regulated. His dream was for a standard of excellence to become the norm in English speaking countries. The goal was for everyone, royalty and pauper alike, to know and to speak the King’s English.
Sadly, Shaw’s dream has not yet been realized. It is not too late, however. Though we stand in what many are calling the eleventh hour (that is, 11:00 a.m. Pacific Standard Time), though we balance on the border of linguistic degradation, though we so perilously stroll upon the precipice of slang, there is hope. We, as English speakers, can make the change ourselves, first, on an individual basis, then on familial, later societal and finally enacting global change. Though the task is daunting, it is achievable. Following is a primer of sorts, a few “problem areas” to watch out for as you begin your own quest for linguistic perfection.
Ending sentences with a preposition is one of the most alarming habits Americans have become accustomed to. Not only is ending a sentence with a preposition incorrect grammatically, but it also elevates laziness at the expense of intellectual rigor which is left far below. Sadly, many Americans do not even know when they end a sentence with a preposition any more often than they know where the words they’re using originally came from. Because you are reading this essay I can safely assume you wish to improve your command of the English language and put your days of linguistic butchery behind. Therefore, be aware that “to,” “for,” “from,” “with,” “in,” “above,” “below,” “behind,” and “of” are some of the common prepositions to watch out for. Cleaning up the grammatical vulgarities in your speech will not be easy but this is a good step to start with.
Another difficulty American’s have with the English language is, as I’m sure you know, inserting frivolous phrases into their sentences. These idle insertions are, how can I put this diplomatically, rather childish ploys, easily discerned and obviously ineffective in their ability to give the speaker an extra split second to think of something witty and/or meaningful with which to follow their inanity. Between you and me, using such inconsequential phrases (identified as just about any phrase set apart by commas or parentheses) is one of the more frustrating experiences, though there are many, of my conversations.
In listening to the radio, in watching television, in conversing with average people I meet on the streets each day, I have been confronted recently by the growing number of American’s (people who, by and large, have grown up speaking the English language, people who should know better, people who use in their daily lives the very words they butcher) who willingly and, dare I say it, consciously choose to form on a very regular basis sentences that do little more than meander across the airwaves, sentences that seem more contrived than meaningful and sentences that lack the brevity and succinctness that mark the intellectual conversation and are instead downright long winded affairs that display very little of the creativity that should mark the vocabulary and syntax of the enlightened, are all but void of any originality, reverting to the lowest common denominator of society’s speech and, finally, are able to say so very little in so many words.
Last, but certainly not least, so many people, regardless of their country of origin, have gotten into the habit of not finishing sentences. It is as if they believe others will finish their sentences for them. I am always at a loss when the person to whom I am speaking pauses for an inordinate period of time and looks to me to finish their thought. “I am not a mind reader,” I want to tell them. You can’t expect me to
Above are only a few of the many areas in which all English speakers, and Americans specifically, can work to improve their command of the English language. By starting small, each and every one of us can make Shaw’s dream a reality. Keep of the good fight. Don’t get discouraged. Remember which words never to end a sentence with. And never, under any circumstances, allow
In his formative years Paul Rondema lived in China, Nigeria and (talk about culture shock) central Indiana before returning to Portland, Oregon where he lives with his wife and daughter. He can be found at paulrondemachildrensauthor.wordpress.com.