Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Michelle Obama, the Grammar Police & a Cranky Crone

Today I read in all the news media about Michelle Obama’s surprise visit to Haiti during her first official solo trip abroad.

I applaud her for her compassion and for bringing public attention to the devastating needs that still have to be met, especially for the Haitian children.

I’m a huge fan of Michelle’s and admire her more than any first lady since, say, Eleanor Roosevelt. But I did wince when I read the statement that she made to the press about her trip. Her insight was perfect but her grammar was not.

“I think it was important for Jill and I to come now because we’re at the point where the relief efforts are under way but the attention of the world starts to wane a bit, ” she said.

What’s wrong with that? Take out Jill and you have “I think it’s important for I to come now.” It’s supposed to be: “It was important for Jill and ME.”

I admit I’m cranky, crochety and over-sensitive about bad grammar. I spent so many years getting a degree in English Literature and then a master’s degree at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism.

Back in the old days, a brilliant editor of The New York Times named Theodore M. Bernstein was also a professor at Columbia J School. After he died in 1979, Time Magazine noted, “Theodore M. Bernstein, 74…served as the paper‘s prose polisher and syntax surgeon for almost five decades, authoring seven popular texts on English usage and journalism…In a witty Times house organ called ‘Winners and Sinners’, the shirtsleeves vigilante caught solecists in the act.”

(Note to Time Magazine, I got a memo from Ted Bernstein, who was spinning in his grave. The memo reads: “ ‘Author’ is not a verb.”)

At Columbia J School we often saw Bernstein’s “Winners and Sinners” newsletter. (It was printed on paper, children, not sent via the internet.) Somewhat like the judges on American Idol, Ted Bernstein would periodically praise a brilliant headline or turn of phrase in the NYT and chide and make fun of grammatical and syntactical lapses.

It used to be that The New York Times was the last bastion of proper grammar, usage and correct spelling. The rules we were taught at Columbia were strict and thorough.

But today even the Times’ reporters, misspell, manhandle the language and misuse verbs like “lie” and “lay” until I wince and fume every morning reading my three newspapers.

I sometimes think I’m the last reporter alive who cares about “lie” and “lay.” (And I think Bob Dylan, who is exactly my age and, like me, from Minnesota, is much to blame for his song “Lay Lady, Lay (across my big brass bed.)”

Here’s the 411: “Lie” is an active verb – as in “When the police came, they found the body lying in the street.” “I’m going to lie down.” It’s “lie”, even if it’s an object: “The police arrived to find the bomb lying in the street.”

“Lay” is when something is laid down by someone else. “The crowd watched the police lay the victim on a stretcher.” “Now I lay ME down to sleep.” Not “Now I lay down to sleep.” That’s wrong! But in past time – “Yesterday I lay down to sleep at nine p.m.” That’s correct. “Lay” is the past tense of “lie”.

Okay, it’s complicated. But somebody has to know.

And don’t even start me on “its” versus “it’s.” And “to”, “too” and “two.”

Today, after tsk-tsking about Michelle’s misuse of “I” and “me”, I turned to the New York Post which I read daily for the gossip and drama. (That’s what tabloids are for.)

Within the first few pages I was faced with two more grave grammatical slips. The defense of the reporter in both cases would probably be, “But I only quoted what he said.” And that’s valid. When you’re quoting someone, even if she’s the first lady, you can’t go around correcting her/his verbal errors.

On page three of the Post, is a sad story of a “Terrified Tot Abandoned on Day-Care Bus” under the title “HE SOBBED ALONE”. The piece ended “SUNY Downstate spokesman Ron Najman said nothing like that had never happened before in the program’s 23 years.”

Maybe all the Post’s copy editors had been fired or were on coffee break yesterday, or working on the Chinese earthquake.

On page six of the Post, (not the famous Page Six, which actually started on page 12), a shaken member of the Los Angeles Angels , star outfielder Torii Hunter, described seeing a “gruesome suicide leap from the luxury hotel” where they were staying. He said, “We just saw the body just laying there. It’s terrible.”

You don’t expect perfect grammar from a baseball player (or from Bob Dylan) but maybe you do from a First Lady who’s a lawyer, educated at Princeton and Harvard.

Kids acquire an ear for correct grammar by hearing it spoken by the adults around them; their parents and their role models. But now that young people mainly communicate by texting in a phonetic code, both spelling and grammar are becoming as antiquated as the Model T.

It’s great that Michelle Obama is encouraging kids to eat smart and get out there and exercise, but let’s encourage them to mind their P’s and Q’s and their prepositions, nouns, verbs and grammar as well.


Robin Paulson said...

Joan, As a queen of diagramming the sentence, and a former parochial school victim, the grammatical error was obvious. Too bad her staff didn't realize it.

Anonymous said...

I do like ur article~!!!...................................................