By Pam Linn

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Language reduced to bleeps

In “Talk to the Hand,” Lynne Truss refers to her earlier bestseller, “Eats, Shoots & Leaves” in this way: “Good punctuation is analogous to good manners. The writer who neglects spelling and punctuation is quite arrogantly dumping a lot of avoidable work onto the reader, who deserves to be treated with more respect.” That page begins with the headline: Why am I the One Doing this?

She has a point. But it’s more than writing that is responsible for awkward reading. It’s a general degradation of spoken language that many would say is caused by the prevalent use of abbreviations in e-mails and text messaging. Truss writes: “The rise of the Internet sealed the doom of grammar.”

Dictionaries are also to blame. While they rightly add new words as they emerge from new technology, they also record the bastardization of perfectly respectable words. New meanings, copied from the lingo of teens, are included alongside words that have morphed from verb to noun to adjective. And the misuse of old favorites by TV newsreaders too young to remember them in their original form.

Like Truss, sometimes I wonder if I’m the only one who cares.

Last week, I discovered I’m not. The volunteer coordinator at the Museum of the Rockies met with another volunteer of some editing experience and me to seek help with the monthly newsletter that goes to all docents and volunteers. The previous editor retired from this task after 30 years. Bless her heart.

Going over typed copies of the articles and calendar items, we both spotted exactly the same word-use and punctuation errors, and agreed on corrections. At last, I’ve found someone else who cares about the misuse of words, confusion of meanings, between less and fewer, further and farther, affect and effect, insure and ensure, its and it’s and so on.

Friends wonder why anyone bothers about such things. Nobody writes anymore, they say. Speed of transmission is the new measure of communication. E-mails are faster to write if nothing is capitalized, punctuation ignored and words are shortened to single letters. The letter “u” substitutes for “you.” Forget the elegance of a phrase, the power of emotion expressed in poetry and prose.

But spoken language also has been degraded, often to the hurling of expletives, replaced by bleeps in the media, which says more about our collective state of mind, anger fueled by too much to do in too little time, than about the limits of our vocabulary.

A high school English teacher once told me that children who grow up in households where the adults speak properly have no difficulty learning grammar. Their ear rejects incorrect usage not because the child understands the rule that’s broken but because it just sounds wrong. The flip side is that those children who hear nothing but mangled syntax can’t rely on their ear, and learning grammar seems both difficult and useless to them.

Pronouns often cause real difficulty when used as the object with a preposition, particularly when connected by “and” to a noun. People just don’t seem to get the difference between the subject pronouns-I, she, we and they – and objective pronouns-me, her, us and them. Hence we hear all the time from bright and well-educated people incorrect phrases such as: it was told to Mary and I, instead of to Mary and me. Getting rid of Mary clears this up for some of us. To others, however, using the subjective pronoun “I” is an affectation even though it sounds wrong to many because it is.

My parents spoke perfect English so I breezed through grammar trusting my ear, but also learned the rules, carefully parsing sentences on those goofy diagrams. Those were the days when people spoke in full sentences containing a subject (noun or pronoun), a predicate (verb) and an object (noun or pronoun). My teacher said, “When in doubt, figure out who (the subject) is doing what (the verb) to whom (the object).” That still works for me.

Mother always warned us that we would be judged by the way we spoke. Using proper English was a measure of good education and upbringing. I’m afraid that in our celebrity adoring society this may no longer be valid. At struggling newspapers, copy editors are let go while gossip columnists are retained.

Those who are able to parlay a specific talent for popular music, politics or sports often succeed without any understanding or appreciation for language. Instrumentalists and singers may rely on composers and lyricists, politicians on the gifts of their speechwriters. Athletes, left to their own devices, often sound like idiots but are idolized just the same.

In “Talk to the Hand,” Truss blames the decline of linguistic eloquence on a growing lack of civility that she says is simply self-centeredness. And the “me” generation is passing on an aggressive attitude to its children, who are growing up with a “me first” attitude. Politeness has become a lost art. Please, thank you and sorry have fallen into disuse replaced by the bleepable expletive. What a bleeping shame.

We are two days into our biennial family reunion and chaos has given way to calm reflection. The kinds of connections that developed for many of us in childhood take on a more quiet intensity.

When you live thousands of miles away from those you hold dear, and every few years you actually meet and hug and trade stories about your children and grandchildren and shared memories, every moment is precious.

This is the largest such gathering in our memory. My nephew has married; add one. My son has a new significant other accompanied by her daughter and toddling granddaughter; add three. Actually, all three of my surviving grandchildren are present. Devon, the oldest at 14, will enter high school next week. “My whole life is going to change; it’s going to be weird,” he tells me in a moment of candor unusual among teen-aged boys.

The girls, all younger than nine, engaged in an orgy of wild shrieking last night that segued into gentler pursuits this morning. Now, their parents have driven them 10 miles to Amy’s soccer practice. She undoubtedly will have the biggest cheering section at the field.

The exodus has left the house quiet enough for my sister and I to have an uninterrupted conversation, much of it to do with changes in Malibu, but that’s another story. Devon has retired alone to the playroom, where last night pool was the name of the game. After breakfast today he led his French uncle on a guided motorcycle tour of the ranch.

The “French Invasion” brings us all back to the place where my children grew up. The European side of the family is my sister’s daughter, Erin, her husband, Dominique, and her two daughters Emily and Alexia, in my opinion the best behaved kids on the planet. Yesterday, they had their first horseback riding lesson from Uncle Bobby, who was amazed at their discipline knowing they could barely contain their excitement.

Over coffee and bagels, Erin and Dominique give me their separate takes on life in the Caribbean island of Martinique. He was sent by the French police for a four-year stint as inspector in charge of a local “gendarmerie.” She is a psychomotor therapist currently working with autistic children. Their girls go to a public school, where full-day pre-school starts at age three. Universal healthcare and all government provided services are delivered in French, though the natives speak a version of Creole.

Erin says the culture is so diverse, so complex, dominated by a sort of caste system left over from colonial days. The natives, Les Martiniques or Les Antilles, are mostly white French citizens who either came early as colonists or later as teachers, doctors, scientists and the like. The island now has several universities and institutes of higher education including first-year medical.

Slavery, which introduced Africans to the island, was abolished at about the same time as our Civil War but was later reintroduced for a time. Most agree this was a bad idea. Now there are many immigrant populations from poorer Caribbean islands and from South America. Entry by boat from French Guiana is relatively easy. For those who gain verifiable employment, something that resembles naturalization or amnesty is possible.

Meanwhile, transportation can be a nightmare for those who have no car. Part of the package for Dominique’s job was free shipping of their Honda and their furniture.

There are van-sized buses that make short hops following no posted schedule, so people have to make many transfers and allow three or four hours to get to and from work.

Dominique, who left an inspector’s position at Dunkirk to take the island gig, says things are very different. All the action happens at night and night falls at 6:30 p.m. year round (being close to the Equator). “Proper” people stay in their homes after dark, are in bed by 8:30 p.m. and arise at around 5 a.m.

Having worked with immigrant populations in Paris, Dominique explains one of the cultural differences among ne’er do wells in Martinique. He says there are gangs but they’re not ethnically based. In Paris, criminals, when apprehended, will lie about everything. “I wasn’t there, I don’t know anything about it, I never saw these guys.” In Martinique, the perps always tell the truth. Without any grilling, they just give it all up, he said. “I did it with my friend. The cocaine is in my pocket. And we did the one last Tuesday, too.” There’s nothing for me to do, he said.

With no cable television on the island (Erin says it will be coming soon), satellite TV is the only option. The basic tier provides only two local channels. The premium package includes French news channels, German, English and other European based news. Erin said anyone with a good job can afford satellite.

Having worked on Martinique for three years, Dominique was eligible for two months vacation and round trip airfare between Martinique and France. The flight to LAX via Dallas/Fort Worth (to visit Erin’s father) wasn’t included.

When asked if he would sign on for another stint, Dominique said not in Martinique, but maybe some other island somewhere. Or maybe back in France. He just doesn’t have plans yet.

My sister is pleased because the nonstop flight to Orly is ever so much nicer, the weather cooler and the destination more to her liking. I’m thrilled the choice is another reunion next year or maybe a trip to Paris. I can already smell the pastry. Divine!