“Sticks and stones may break my bones…”

“…but words will never hurt me.”  We know the children’s rhyme well.  I’ve even discussed the fallacy in an earlier note, with regard to harmful language.  By that, I mean hurtful words, spoken in anger or with hateful intent.  Tonight, my objective is not to continue in that vein, but to explore the other side of how words can be hurtful (at least to people like me). 

I’ve turned into a language purist, a word cop, if you will.  And, I am hurt by words.  I obviously don’t have a huge working vocabulary, so quantity is not the issue.  The issue I speak of is the pain that is caused by the slow death of the English language as we know it.  Every day, I hear some usage of our shared mother tongue (at least for those of us who aren’t first generation Americans) that makes me cringe a little.  And my reference is not just to local idioms.  Those, I hear on a daily basis, since my vocation now encompasses a national clientele, rather than a local one. I do wish that the regional dialects weren’t spoken in such a variety of accents, since it makes information gathering more difficult, but I’m actually expressing my distaste for the abuse of the everyday words which should be our tools, one of our most valued assets. 

I’m constantly reminded of how my demeanor toward offenses against our language has changed through the years.  There was a day when I approached the English language with a cavalier attitude, intending that it should serve me and not the other way around.  I have come to realize, over my lifetime, that we are more the slave to cobbled-up speech, than we are its master.  The misunderstandings, the slights by those more educated, the flat-out errors which occur because of our abuse of the language, require more time and pain to repair and recover from than using the correct words would have in the first place.  Yes, English is a difficult language, but it is our language, and it doesn’t appear that we will see a change in that anytime soon.  We should probably make the effort to achieve mastery over it.

I now find myself concerned with words like “lay” and “lie”, one of the most common usage errors we hear and one which actually plagued me in earlier years.  If you are placing something down, you use the correct form of “lay”.  If you are reclining, “lie” is appropriate  A fairly simple concept, but one that is abused daily, even by some of the most educated folks I know.  And, when I speak, I can “imply” something.  When I listen, I can “infer”, but not vice versa.  “I couldn’t care less” means that I really am not concerned, while “I could care less” means nothing close to what you think it means. 

These are just a few of the examples I hear every day, and they hurt.  Making no comment whatsoever about his political views, I like a phrase that Rush Limbaugh has used in the past (I haven’t listened recently).  “Words mean things,” is his adamant statement and I find myself in total agreement.  Careless use of words diminishes their meaning.  When our method of communication is impaired and devalued, so is our society.  Is it the end of civilization as we know it?  Of course not!  But the lack of  concern for these common tools of every person’s trade demonstrates a carelessness which makes us less sophisticated and less enlightened than our fathers and forefathers, despite our advanced technology.

So, now that you know that I’m a speech Nazi, you may roll your eyes and shrug your shoulders.  Infer what you will from my rant.  I really couldn’t care less, since it’s about bedtime and I’m going to be lying down to rest (under my electric blanket) very soon. 

“Morals and manners will rise or decline with our attention to grammar.”
(Reverend Jason Chamberlain, professor of languages, University of Vermont, 1811)

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