The best way to show your age? Tell people you pine for the days of proper grammar.
I’m just kidding. You don’t want to use the word ‘pine’ in mixed company unless you’re willing to move off the grid, buy a cabin in Montana and retire to a lifetime of talking to whiskey bottles and having meaningful sex with inanimate objects.
Everyone curses India for being smarter than us and taking our jobs, but that’s only because it’s true. As I watched the Scripps National Spelling Bee the other night, I couldn’t help but feel as if my proper grammar had been kidnapped, held for ransom and then murdered, brutally.
Vanya Shivashankar carved through a list of words that included bouquetiere, thamakau, tantieme, urgrund, myrmotherine, zimocca, hippocrepiform, scacchite and bruxellois. Co-champion, Gokul Venkatachalam, was no less impressive, nailing words like caudillismo, scytale, cypseline, filicite, sprachgefuhl, nixtamal, paroemiology, pipsissewa and pyrrhuloxia.
Spell ’em? I couldn’t even pronounce them! Sitting there, flubbing words I didn’t even know existed with my bag of nachos and a bowl of salsa . . . I felt like a true American. Not the fools who blanketed social media after the Bee wrapped up and railed on about Indian kids hijacking OUR contest, no. Those people are blathering idiots who wouldn’t be able to spell out the letters of the network that aired the Scripps Bee (ESPN). They don’t give a fig about their ABC’s, until they no longer end in USA.
These kids are my heroes, because they get it. They don’t have to have things spelled out for them. Not when they can handle words like scherenschnitte without missing a beat. They appreciate the infinite power of the written word the way most American kids appreciate Taylor Swift’s latest single. That kind of dedication shouldn’t be hated on, it should be celebrated. It should be an expectation, rather than a wish.
The truth is, grammar ain’t proper no more (told ya). It’s a bastardized version of the Canterbury Tales, more intent on pose than prose. The basics have been damned to hell in favor of a grammar whose method is all about instant gratification. Put this way, proper grammar is like tennis. You have lines and rules and sequence. To achieve mastery within this rectangular struggle of Kings and Queens is a legendary exercise in strength, discipline and sheer will. Contemporary grammar . . is handball.
Check out the latest installment of the Merriam Webster Dictionary. Photobomb, emoji and meme are now a part of the American vernacular, which just goes to show that they’ll let anybody in the place. Merriam used to be a classy dame, but now? She’s just a ‘ho. (Yes . . ‘ho is in there too.)
I’m not crying about it (It’s more like a long, agonizing whine, really). Proper grammar had a better run than the San Antonio Spurs or Larry King’s sex life. Plato opened shop on the best ideas of the written word by marrying structure to symbolism and fathering a prodigious boom of timeless pens. From Homer to Alighieri, Shakespeare to Wilde, Rand to Lennon.
Then the internet came along and bludgeoned it.
Cayman’s Dumbed Down History of the Internet
In the late ’60’s, with the escalation of the war in Vietnam and increasing unrest at home, the U.S. Government decided they didn’t have enough shit on their plate. So they went in their tax payer funded garage with the intent of creating a telepathic communications system that would render the Kremlin and the KGB into muppets. After a decade of zero results and billions spent (U.S. Govt translation: Progress), they let the academics have a couple swings at it. Information became data, professors became divorced and cocktail parties became networking events. It was in July of 1987 when some guy in parachute pants and High Tops uttered the famous refrain “Holy fucking shit! This is gonna make us rich!”. By the early nineties, with the commercial possibilities of an uber-connected computer system obvious to anyone with half a brain, Al Gore visited a sperm bank in the middle of the night and nine minutes later, the internet was born. Bill Clinton is considered the crazy uncle of the internet, thanks to his contribution: online porn.
Sadly, grammar in its most exalted form had no place in this brave new computerized world. The internet was a bullet train whose mission was to provide results in the blink of an eye. The pivot points were volume and mass, and all this crazy science experiment did was change the world. So really, the omission of a few rightly placed P’s and Q’s was never going to be as important. Luxuriating in the written word became a quaint trespass. Sorta like watching PBS with the sound up.
The thing about the internet, is that it not only tolerates fault, it embraces it. It’s probably the only charming quality it possesses. But inside that organic testimonial lies the inevitable truth that the need for speed killed syntax. Don’t take my word for it, read a circular or a magazine . . hell, even the New York Times- the Church of our Daily Word- has gone rogue, or as they spell it . rouge.
You have a better shot of convincing people that Brad Pitt is a virgin than of talking them into the idea that words should be revered; and as such, they should be buffed and polished to detail. I’m just thankful Oscar Wilde wasn’t alive in the time of emojis. No doubt he would’ve been epic in his use of the things. Problem is, The Importance of Being Earnest probably would’ve been a comic book.
Words, correctly spelled and (this is important) used in context . . they still matter to me. I’m not a stickler about it, just stubborn. Don’t confuse my agonized whine as that of a soulless dictator of words. I don’t need no stinking rules, and I really love to color outside the literary lines. But . . I respect the rules and more than that? I remember a time, not that long ago, when they actually counted for something.
I won’t give up my inner spell check to an app, because I think when you start giving up on the little things, you’ve got no chance with the big picture. Words matter to me, because words are times and places to me. They remind me of spelling bees, glass bottles, first kisses, Stevie Wonder and summer days that promised more of that good thing.
The written word isn’t asking me to be perfect. It’s just asking me to give a shit enough to try.