Mark Shields: Am I just cranky?

By Mark Shields

You accept that you are completely uncool when you don’t tweet, when you still write paper checks to pay your bills and when you continue to call them “tattoos” instead of “body art” or “ink.”

But recently I have been forced to bite my tongue not to loudly correct the epidemic of bad grammar, which has infected our daily life. If one more person lowers his voice to confide that what he’s about to tell me is “between you and I,” I’m afraid I’ll blow a gasket. As all of those lucky enough to be taught by Miss Galvin and Miss Conroy learned, sometimes painfully, a preposition — which includes words such as to, from, of, into, and between — is always followed by the objective form of the pronoun — him, her, us, them and me, and never by he, she, we, they or I.

The collapse of grammar is, sadly, bipartisan. President George W Bush, an alumnus of both Yale and Harvard, actually did say, “Families is where our nation finds hope and where wings take dream.”

The subject of a sentence — in this case, the plural “families” — must be followed by a plural form of the verb. So to be correct, the sentence should read “families are,” and I am not sure how to translate the phrase, “where wings take dream.”

But President Barack Obama, an Ivy League graduate of Columbia and Harvard Law School, is also a serial offender. He thanked the Danish people for the hospitality “shown to Michelle and I” –wrong, “me”— and states, “we’ve had conversations between Frank and I.” No, “me.” Broken syntax and bad grammar spoken by the president, whose words are carried into every home, make the already tough job of teaching correct English to our school children even more difficult.

A friend of mine wants to pin, I think unfairly, the whole downward spiral on an unlikely villain, Elton John, who wrote “Crocodile Rock “ with the memorable lines: “I remember when rock was young; Me and Susie had so much fun.” When was the last time we heard an allegedly educated individual announce “me and him” are going to the game or to the movies? Probably, sadly, within the last 48 hours.

Too many TV people are ignorant of the difference between “less” and “fewer.” It’s really pretty straightforward: “Less” is used with nouns that cannot be counted, or one that has no plural form, such as time, humidity or water. “Fewer” is used with countable plural nouns, such as hours, rivers or drinks. No product, therefore, should ever be advertised for having “less calories,” because calories can be counted. Fewer cars and drivers means less traffic.

I hope this is not a case of terminal crankiness on my part. In a national community as big, brawling and increasingly diverse as ours, the capacity to communicate clearly and openly with each other and among all of us is urgent. Broken syntax and ungrammatical language can make the challenge of our understanding of one another even more onerous. In order to say what we mean, we first ought to agree on how to say it.

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