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Diction Friction

Emily Flake

By Mink Stole | Posted 3/26/2003

I'm an English grammar pedant. It's not my fault: I was forced to memorize the differences between objective and subjective case, active and passive voice, and transitive and intransitive verbs at a tender age. Under the merciless eye of Sister Mary Mustache (not her real name), my classmates and I spent hours conjugating verbs and diagramming compound sentences. She announced all of our test grades and gleefully humiliated whichever poor kid got the lowest score. I hated and feared her--we all did--but my mind really took to the subject and, although she would never actually praise me (that would have violated the Nuns' Code), I was at least spared her scorn. All in all, I'm glad I learned to speak correctly, but my love of the language has made me a snob. My hackles rise when someone asks me where something is "at." I care deeply about the correct usage of "whom." I've spent a lifetime training myself not to cringe when someone tells me he's going to "lay" down. I learned long ago that no one likes to be corrected, so I don't, but it costs me. At the end of some social evenings my tongue is a bloody pulp from having been bitten so much. I hate being so judgmental. Do you have any advice for me? Please?

Between You and Me


Dear BYAM:
I feel your pain. I had my own nun, Sister Francis Nose Hair (not her real name), who, although I loathe her to this day, taught me to love English. And I, too, have had to learn that most people don't give a good damn whether their subjects agree with their verbs as long as they're understood. An alternate definition for pedant is "big fat bore." I figured out, then, that unless I wanted to spend all my time with other "big fat bores" I'd better learn to deal. So, rather than staying at home reading old William Safire columns, I hang out with good friends--even though they can be occasionally grammatically incorrect.

Grammar is only one component of speech. When you can start paying equal attention to wit, knowledge, humor, and good sense, you'll be a lot happier. I know I relaxed when I realized that just because my brain likes words doesn't mean I am better than anyone. I still can't paint like Henri Matisse, dance like Anna Pavlova, or balance my own checkbook. Half the time I can't even tell a good joke. So much for verbal superiority.

But even as "different from" steadily loses ground to "different than," and "less" and "fewer" become interchangeable, there are refuges for us. Various public-radio word games and Web sites (check out Pedants Anonymous) cater to us and feed our smug little egos. And if you really want to influence the state of the language, try teaching or mentoring. Tolerance notwithstanding, it's valuable for anyone to learn to speak well. For every thousand or so people who couldn't care less, there might be one who will notice and be favorably impressed.

My mother-in-law is so intrusive. Since my marriage, she's been stopping by whenever she feels like it, without calling first. She had a key to our house when we first moved in, but after letting herself in one too many times without knocking (that was embarrassing!), we had the locks changed. Now we have a baby girl. Although my husband has asked her a million times to call before she comes over, she still just pops in. I'm exhausted and resent having to play hostess to her. She often brings presents for the baby, or some coffee cake she's just baked, and that's all very sweet, but I always end up having to wait on her. She's not a bad woman, but she just can't understand that I need privacy. She's a widow, my husband is her only child, and my daughter adores her. I don't want to be rude or unkind, but I'm losing patience. I'm just afraid I'll say or do something that will hurt her feelings.

Daughter-in-Law Dearest:

Dear DILD:
Your mother-in-law may be a lovely woman, but if she's been asked repeatedly to call first and still ignores the request, she's also an inconsiderate pain in the ass. She knows what she's doing, by the way; she's working the you-can't-get-mad-at-me-because-I'm-so-sweet-I-brought-you-a-present angle like a pro. Try inviting her over for lunch on a specific day a week or two from now. Then, if she shows up unannounced beforehand, don't ask her in but take whatever gift she's bearing and sweetly thank her. Make sure to tell her you're much too busy to visit now but that you're really looking forward to seeing her next Thursday. Then close the door--in her face if necessary. Be gracious but firm. Smiling is crucial.

Let your husband know how you're planning to deal with the situation so he can back you up. Once boundaries have been violated, it's very hard to re-establish them. Your mom-in-law has quite neatly manipulated you into a position where you feel you have to choose between being a bitch or a pushover. If you keep inviting her over for specific dates while staying purposefully unavailable any other time, you might just be able to outmaneuver her.

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