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Good grammar: ‘The difference between a sharp pencil and a thick crayon’

“Up with which I shall not put.”

Famously but wrongly attributed to Winston Churchill as the one who said it first, it is nonetheless the priceless put-down of the lengths and “errant pedantry” to which English language grammarians will go to avoid any preposition at the end of any sentence.

We all have things we won’t “put up with” — right?

Nuff said.

But people my age are likely the last ones made to actually memorize a list of prepositions in grammar school to avoid at the end of sentences at all costs. That was an error up with which our teachers would not put.

I admit, therefore, to being somewhat of a snob in English. I cannot help my age. But the abominations I hear from people such as doctors and news anchors, who make more money in a year than I made in a lifetime, fill up the public space.

Doctors ask patients where their “pain is at.” Reporters live on camera identify the places that “they’re at.” And students ask the lunchroom staff where the books they left “are at.”

Mercy, mercy, mercy!

Whatever happened to “where’s the pain?” or “where’s my book?” and “we are live in Vicksburg.”

True enough that change is constant, and language more than most. But there have always been repositories of the best there is in language. In courtrooms, absolutely; in classrooms, undeniably; in prize-winning poetry and novels, predictably. Now, none of that is true.

English grammar rules from Latin have always been a problem, especially with perfect tenses. What is the actual needed difference between “I ate” and “I have eaten?” What is the time construct in each? What is the reason for six tenses? And all their proper conjugations?

But other rules make sense. And we’re just afraid to follow them.

Language has a class appeal. We use it to flash status. But it doesn’t work that way. We’ve inherited a bias against “me” and “them” in English. “Him” and “her” and “them” and “us” as well. We think that “I” is always correct and therefore always to be used. But it’s not. A ball never hits “I”; it hits “me.” And tickets are never sent to “we.” They’re always sent to “us.”

But we continue to confuse ourselves with nominative and objective case forms when all we have to do is ask, “Do I send the tickets to “her?” Or do I send them to “she?” If I send them to “her,” then I also send them to “him” – meaning I send them to “him and her,” not “he and she” because that sounds uppity. 

The truth is we have taken something simple and made it very hard.

I love the grace in language. But I hate the vanity. I think it was Chesterton who said, “The use of the right word, the exact word, is the difference between a pencil with a sharp point and a thick crayon.” The same is true of grammar. Vanity’s not needed.

Just good grammar.

Yolande Robbins is a community columnist for The Vicksburg Post.