The Curmudgeon’s Not the Only One Serious About Language

Thank goodness.

The Curmudgeon is pretty much at his most curmudgeonly when it comes to how we use and abuse language. He feels fortunate that he is not alone. Friends and co-workers send him examples of things they know will amuse or bother him, and when they do, they make it clear that they, too, are amused or bothered.

Just not enough to rant about it like a certain curmudgeonly sort.

Recently, for example, regular reader Barbara (Barbara of New Jersey, that is, not to be confused with Barbara of Maryland) sent The Curmudgeon a private email (his address is on the side of the front screen of the blog, under “About the Four-Eyed Curmudgeon”) in which she wrote of a recent edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer:

The first film review on page W4 starts out “Eddie Mannix’s stock and trade is ‘oddballs and misfits.’ ”  

Of course, being the second guessing person that I am (not proud of it, but it’s a trait) I immediately thought “have I been using that phrase incorrectly all these years as ‘stock in trade?’ ”  Also being the kind of person that must have the answer to that I looked it up and was relieved I had not.

Yay, Barbara! You are one of us.

And so was the writer of a recent piece in the Washington Post. (By the way, when The Curmudgeon refers to something as a “recent piece” or that he “recently read” something and isn’t more specific about when, it usually means he made note of it more than a little while ago but hadn’t gotten around to writing about it. In this particular case, the article in question was published on December 4. The Curmudgeon could give lessons in procrastination, readers.)

This particular item was by Bill Walsh, a Washington Post editor, and he was explaining that the Post was changing some of its practices concerning how certain words are used or spelled. The Curmudgeon would like to share some of Walsh’s explanations with you – along with some of his own curmudgeonly observations.

Starting today, you will no longer read about e-mail or Web sites in The Washington Post. Or open-mike nights or Wal-Mart. Here, as in much of the written-word world, you will see email and website and Walmart. Microphones will be mics.

The Curmudgeon understands. Stickler though he is, he gave in on email, website (very regrettably), and Walmart (he deferred to the company, deciding to use however it referred to itself on its own website). He refuses, however, to give in on mic. Never! Walsh clearly feels his pain concerning mic, too. The Curmudgeon finds this comforting.

Why is the Post doing this? Walsh explains.

Why did we wait so long to make the changes? As the keeper, more or less, of The Post’s style manual, I’ll tell you why: because the new spellings were wrong.

Yes! Wrong! And wrong is wrong is wrong, right?

Not so fast, Walsh writes.

Funny thing about language: Wrong doesn’t necessarily stay wrong. “Error is the engine of language change,” as David Shariatmadari wrote in the Guardian, “and today’s mistake could be tomorrow’s vigorously defended norm.”

And he goes on:

As a purist, I’m still not happy about mic. As a pragmatist, I feel I have to accept it. At least at work, that is.

Again, The Curmudgeon agrees. At work, for example, he has given in to using numerals for numbers greater than ten (10). In this space he only recently began applying the same standard. When he writes fiction, however, he insists on spelling out all numbers above 9 (nine) except those that end with more than 1 (one) zero (0), such 100 or 5000. (And at work, his co-workers, all spreadsheet people, insist on putting a comma in 5000, as in 5,000. He was always taught that the comma is optional and believes that when in doubt he should leave it out.

Addressing the e-mail to email transition, Walsh explains that

While it’s true that commonly used two-word or hyphenated compounds often solidify into single words over time, that had never before happened with a compound based on a single letter. We had T-shirts and X-rays for a long time before electronic mail showed up, but we still aren’t writing about tshirts and xrays.

The Curmudgeon is resisting this one, but he knows he is fighting a losing battle. When asked to explain at the office why he insists on a hyphenation and not a blended version of some word he always cites the dictionary – but he has to admit that more and more, the dictionary people are giving in, too. (He also occasionally cites Microsoft Word’s spell-check function, but when he worked on the final draft of this piece spell-check rejected 7 (seven) of these 1172 words.)

Then there’s a more complicated matter:

There was one change, though, that I knew would cause controversy. For many years, I’ve been rooting for — but stopping short of employing — what is known as the singular they as the only sensible solution to English’s lack of a gender-neutral third-person singular personal pronoun. (Everyone has their own opinion about this.) He once filled that role, but a male default hasn’t been palatable for decades. Using she in a sort of linguistic affirmative action strikes me as patronizing. Alternating he and she is silly, as are he/she, (s)he and attempts at made-up pronouns. The only thing standing in the way of they has been the appearance of incorrectness — the lack of acceptance among educated readers.

The Curmudgeon knows one regular visitor to this space who conducts a running dialogue on her Facebook page with one of her friends about this very subject – an obviously very bright fellow who makes The Curmudgeon seem like an absolute ray of sunshine. Generally speaking, The Curmudgeon agrees with the fellow, but he has to admit to applying a double standard here: he prefers to be inconsistent and to leave his decision to what sounds better in each individual situation – that is, he decides based on his own ear, which he readily concedes is one very arbitrary way to make such decisions.

Or better yet, he writes around it.

Walsh seems like a good guy: as Kenny Rogers sang, he seems to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, and know when to run.

The Curmudgeon is still figuring this out and learning when to pick his spots. Another losing battle The Curmudgeon is waging, for example: how many spaces to leave between a period and the first capital letter of the next sentence. The Curmudgeon’s upbringing was unambiguous on this matter: two (2)! More and more, though, people are leaving just one (1). Worse, from his perspective, the co-workers who are using just one are his youngest co-workers, which leaves him, the oldest employee of the company at the age of fifty-eight (58), feeling like an old fuddy-duddy.

Or, more precisely…

A Curmudgeon!

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