From run-on sentences to split infinitives, here's why I'm cranky about language
Mark H. Alcott
OK, it’s true. When it comes to language, I’m a bit cranky.
All right, all right. I admit it. I’m more than a crank. I’m an absolute curmudgeon. ’enry ’iggins had nothing on me. I have enough pet peeves to fill a kennel. And I never hesitate to point them out.
I abhor run-on sentences, which, these days, don’t just run but gallop endlessly across the pages of our most respected media. Split infinitives drive me to drink; but alas, they too are now mainstream. And those participles! They dangle more precariously than the protagonists in a Hitchcock thriller. “As one of my most loyal supporters, I want to thank you for your help in the campaign.” PUHLEEZ! If you are one of your own most loyal supporters, you’re more narcissistic than Trump.
I cringe when people obviously think they are exercising extreme care to differentiate between I and me, but get it wrong every time. “A summer associate came to court with Jack and I.” Ugh. They would never say “with I and Jack.” Don’t they understand that the object of a preposition remains such even if its location is shifted by a conjunction? Evidently not.
Those who use I where it doesn’t belong often fail to use it where it does belong. I refer to the distasteful tendency to transform the nominative into the reflexive, as in “Q: Who attended the board meeting? A: Barbara and myself.” Double ugh. The same foolishness often occurs when the objective first-person pronoun is called for. “He asked Sarah and myself to edit the brief.” (I know, I know. The prior sentence is faulty because it ends with a preposition. But as Churchill said: “Ending a sentence with a preposition is a situation up with which I shall not put.”)
And it seems that only a tiny portion of English speakers (or at least American speakers) know the difference between lie (to recline) and lay (to place). Therefore, we get following embarrassment: “I’m so tired, I’m going to lay in bed.” Please don’t; there are children present. (Virtually no one has a clue that the past tense of lie is lay, or that laid is the past tense of lay. But let’s not go there.)
You would think that even those who don’t know the difference between a gerund and a gerbil would be able to distinguish between nouns and verbs. No such luck. Consider this monstrosity: “We have employed two new hires in the litigation department, and we have tasked them with an assignment on our most important case.” Fuggedaboutit! We don’t employ new hires; we hire new employees. And when they are on the job, we don’t task them with an assignment; we assign them a task.
Then there are the verbal tics, including the Valley Girl standbys—like, actually, you know, I mean; the combined form: you know what I mean; right; and sort of. (For some reason, the latter two are favored by the English, who should know better. After all, they invented the language.) Now there is a new one: the use of so at the beginning of a sentence, where it serves no purpose other than to delay. National Public Radio, usually the most erudite of our media, is home to the most frequent so-sayers. “Q: So where did you go to law school? A: So I went to Georgetown.” Oy.
I won’t even discuss the debasement of our discourse by the constant use of foul language, especially certain off-color Anglo-Saxon verbs. Cole Porter famously wrote: “Good authors too who once knew better words/now only use four-letter words/writing prose./Anything goes.” And that was decades before the advent of cable TV.
(The astute among you have undoubtedly noticed my penchant for starting sentences with the conjunctions and and but, as well as the occasional adverb. That is a definite rule-breaker, admittedly one of mea culpas. But (there I go again), as Joe E. Brown said to Jack Lemmon in the classic last line of Some Like it Hot, “Nobody’s perfect.”)
To recycle Vladimir Lenin’s famous question: “What is to be done?”
I leave that to you, dear reader. Education is the presumptive answer, but can our educational system accomplish anything these days? Suggestions are welcome. (And stay tuned to this space for cranky language, part 2.)
Mark H. Alcott has spent his career at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison as partner and now of counsel, serving as litigator, arbitrator, mediator, author, lecturer and professional/community activities leader. His positions include the ABA Board of Governors and House of Delegates; fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers; and former president of the New York State Bar Association.
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