It must be equally profitable and futile to teach normal English to government executives, and it keeps Albert Joseph off the street.
He has been conducting a course for executives of the income tax agency. In the session I visited, the six men and three women seemed to be interested -- part of their long training in camouflage, probably.
"The first day I got here," said an executive who has risen from whatever is lowest in the agency to whatever is very high, "I was told never to forget three things: Cover your tail, keep a record, and touch all bases."
Joseph runs a firm called International Writing Institute in Cleveland. He has issued a new booklet, "Executive Guide to Grammar," and people sit down and gaze at it when he conducts his courses for corporations, government agencies, or whoever else hires him. The book is full of sound fifth-grade precepts; sentences should have clear subjects and clear verbs. And like that.
He does his damnedest to set people straight on who and whom. This may be the place to observe that the phrase "college-educated" is coming to mean "slothful, vague, half-baked" because the more college-educated people we turn out in this society the worse the language is used.
The rule is simple: In our language the verb is exalted above all, and dictates other parts of speech. So look to the verb. Joseph cites a common barbarism, at least as common in news rooms as anywhere else:
"Send this message to whomever you think should get it." A literate person would change this to "Send this message to whoever you think should get it." That is because whoever is the subject of should get, and once you see its relationship to the verb, you may forget everything else.
In English, as Joseph soundly insists, you try to keep it straight whether a pronoun is subject or object of a verb. Lord knows we have few enough ways to go wrong in English, and it is perverse to botch up the few rules we have.
The great crimes in English are few:
* Babbledy-babbledy for no good reason, as when you say "Management has become cognizant of the necessity of eliminating undesirable vegetation surrounding the periphery of our facility" when you mean "Cut the weeds."
* Forgetting the near-sacred quality of the verb and its power to dominate anything else in the sentence, with the result that subjects and objects are confused.
* Affection, prudery and prisiness. These related sins are common among those who hope to show how elegant they are by uttering what they hope are exquisite things. French phrases are standbys of the vulgar and quite unnecessary, since we have English words for almost all the things they do.
But note well: Sometimes it is better usage to confuse them. It is correct to say "It's me" or "It's us," for only one reason; it has become standard. This does not mean that other grammatical errors are all right. It is dead wrong to say "between he and I" even if it is common. Ay, madam, 'tis common. And if you say it, you might as well wear a dirty shirt. The only time you say it is if you're a politician or a redneck preacher or a visitor in the South and want to make it clear you are ignorant, non-fancy, and contemptuous of education in general.
Joseph works hard and lights his candle, and there is no need to nitpick at such clumsy usages as "Executive Guide" when "The Executive's Guide" is far better.
He will not, however, for the following reasons, make any dent of those who murder the language:
* All his executive pupils have heard it before and paid no attention. They did not believe Moses, as it were, so why will they suddenly believe Joseph?
* Language does far more than communicate facts clearly. Language also, and importantly, proclaims solidarity or lack of it, and proclaims class bias and much else. It does not occur to anybody that his own class is inferior, and he will refuse flatly to use the language of another class. Unless he is a cunning fox hoping to pass for what he is not.
* Joseph will fail because kids do not have the Bible drummed into them at an early age. This book translated in 1611 used to keep the language sweet. When it has not been abandoned (the usual case) it has been barbarized in later translations by nincompoops.
* He will fail in his pretty task because distinctions are not made between difficult words-of-art and mere gabble. It is not necessarily gibberish to speak of "functional automotive initiatives," though God only knows what that means.
It is not bad English to speak of partially recessive inhibitory genes merely because we do not know what those are. It is a mistake to speak of them to people who have no idea what they are, of course, since they will not know what is meant. But it is not bad English. It is not like "surrounding periphery of our facility," which is the only remaining ground for public executions.
I knew a man who used to show up at a lunch counter and say, "Gimme two of them Goo-Goo Clusters," a high-calorie candy understandably admired by those whose work took a lot of heaving and ho-ing, and that fellow's language always seemed to me wholesome and sound despite the very slight error of "them" which is almost correct anyway.
It would be wrong, I think, to get anxious about such a trifling error. It is also extremely dangerous to flirt with technical language without knowing what you're doing, a thing people sometimes do.
If you begin your last will and testament, for example, with the standard, "In the Name of God, Amen" simply because you think it sounds agreeably old-fashioned, you may run into trouble worse than you thought. A court will assume that since you know the ancient form, you know what you're doing, and if you later misuse some technical legal term, you may be in hot water. In such a case it is better and safer to write the will by hand saying, "I want all my property of any kind to go to my wife." Signed Joe Blow. At least the court will know what you mean.
The oddest thing about English is that if the intent is to be plain, the language will come out all right, and nobody is going to care much about a little technical lapse from time to time. Once I worked for a season chopping cotton (that is the way you say it; it means chopping the weeds from among the young cotton plants) with a lot of men and women who had barely been to school at all. What struck me was that in a year I never heard errors of English that curled my teeth. I was often startled at the beauty of language, as in "O, I don't never want to be alone no more." Anybody who thinks that is barbarous English has much to learn about it. Despite a technical error or two.
The trouble with this tongue always comes when the surge is lost and a vain search is made for the high-powered big word and the lofty abstraction. Then this language collapses; it can't bear such weights.
Every school should have big signs in classrooms showing Great English Sentences: See Spot run. John loves Mary. My love is like a red, red rose. He said I think I do. Peace be within thy wall. The trumpets speak when princes come. Like that. The rest is balderdash.