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Ahlin: To love, cherish words and grammar at any age

‘At age 98 I have observed many changes in the English language and, like most old people, I dislike most of them.”

So began a recent message from my email friend Bill Treumann. Although we’ve never met, we connected long ago as unabashed grammar-lovers, sometimes disheartened, other times amused by the use and abuse of grammar. In his email, Bill reflected on grammar blunders, although his main subject was word usage. A day brightener for me, his thoughts were too good not to share.

Bill wrote, “Things that used to be free are now for free, and situations that used to be hot are now cool. What formerly were problems are more likely to be called issues. I see information presented as true facts. Many ordinary events are said to be incredible, astonishing, fantastic, and awesome.”

The quest for gender-neutral language has a downside: “Chairman is replaced by chair and mankind by humankind. I’m not sure what is now preferred for manmade or brotherhood – maybe siblinghood for the latter. ‘He’ is often replaced by the awkward ‘he or she,’ or worse, ‘he/she,’ or even s/he.’ The opinion of one person is often referred to as ‘their’ opinion.”

Bill went on, “During a drought people used to look hopefully at the sky, but now they say, “Hopefully it will rain soon.” Also, ‘in the hope of’ is typically replaced by ‘in hopes of.’ ” (Note to Bill: Long ago I gave up hoping hope and hopefully might return to robust language from the world of haze and vague meaning.) Bill literally has given up on literally, although I have not. He tells me “that at least one dictionary now reports ‘literally’ as a figurative used for emphasis, as in ‘My head literally exploded when I heard the news.’”

To which I must say, I literally laughed out loud.

Bill sees problems with singulars and plurals. He wrote, “People say they gather data but report that ‘the data shows. …’ Media, phenomena, spectra, strata, and bacteria are meeting the same fate.”

Certainly, I can’t remember the last time I heard anyone stick to subject-verb agreement by saying, “The datum

shows ...”

Moving on to science, Bill wrote, “In the middle of the 20th century, synthetic detergents were developed and detergent came to be applied exclusively to the synthetics. Now, even Chemical and Engineering News reports annually on ‘soaps and detergents.’”

“When a headline announces that yesterday the price of crude oil spiked, you misunderstand if you think that the price advanced steeply and then declined. The accompanying data would show the intended meaning is that the price rapidly reached a plateau.” Bill also wrote, “Many scientific terms with narrow meanings have been greatly expanded on entering popular usage, but the term ‘chemical’ has gone in the other direction. A recent book is titled ‘Your Chemical-Free Lawn,’ but the author did not mean that lawns should be dehydrated.”

Bill also mentioned ecology, as a “subdivision of biology,” which actually means “the study of the relations of organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings,” rather than the science of Earth preservation or tree-hugging nonsense, depending on one’s political leanings.

Not surprisingly, he expressed his displeasure with the ongoing onslaught on the objective case by many radio and television people and, sad to say, even some academics. No question, to Bill and me hearing someone say “to he and I” is like hearing fingernails scraped across a blackboard. (OK, I’m not as old as Bill, but I can think way back to blackboards.)

Returning to word usage, Bill told about a scientist who died, was cremated, and had some of his ashes placed on a spacecraft. The inscription on the container began, “Interned herein are the remains of ...”

Another time to laugh out loud – literally, of course.

Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum. Email