Friday, September 23, 2011
Tonight while I was half-watching the news and half-eating my dinner, I half-heard one of the more annoying and ubiquitous abuses of grammar that seems to pop up in every newscast.
It was about an abandoned border collie, blind since birth, that had been taken in by a good Samaritan and trained to work with disabled children.
"Born without eyes, her owners left her by the side of the road," the announcer told us.
People just seem to assume that the collie is the subject of that sentence, if they think of such things at all. But here is what the sentence actually means:
"Her owners, born without eyes, left her by the side of the road."
There is none so blind, you say? Or ignorant. I don't know why I'm not totally inured to this sort of abuse, because it comes at me from every side, every day.
I won't get into the grotesque distortions of spelling and grammar that are permanently deforming the language via Twitters and Tweets. (And by the way, could there have been a more air-headed, DUMB name for this new five-second form of networking?) I won't because I can't without bursting into tears, and I'm already sniffling over that poor abandoned collie and its eye-less owners.
I keep running into this weird inversion, but nobody ever says anything about it. That's because attention deficit disorder, like obesity and Type II diabetes, is now standard, and paying more than two seconds of attention to anything at all is a social sickness. I don't expect us to go back to the ancient days of parsing sentences (though I had to do it, along with conjugating Latin verbs). I admit to using vernacular expressions, informal English, and loose grammar when it seems appropriate.
But on a news broadcast?
Speaking of twists and turns of grammar, every once in a while somebody jumps up and complains about O Canada, because of the following line:
True patriot love in all thy sons command.
SONS? Why not sonsanddaughters? Oops, doesn't seem to fit somehow. But we can't seem to leave this alone. One major newspaper even started an informal write-in contest for an alternate line that wasn't sexist (and still scanned).
My favorite was from a fellow who said, you're all just being ridiculous. It's so easy to fix this problem! Just change it to:
True patriot love, in all of thy command.
Let me tell you what is wrong with this sentence and why it DOES NOT WORK, not to mention WHY it offends me and makes me feel sick to my stomach. It demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding of basic sentence structure and the way in which it intertwines with meaning.
For one thing, there's no comma after "love". Why does this matter? Because a comma isn't necessary, and would in fact distort the correct meaning of the line.
"In all of thy command" seems to be implying that true patriot love is "in everyone's command": command being a noun, of course. "Thy" assumes that the original "sons" is possessive: in all thy SONS' command (or maybe "son's"? Why not simplify this and boil all those sons down into one?)
So this true patriot love, apparently, should be in the command of the sons. How gauche to leave out the daughters.
This tricky and oft-contested line is in an inverted form we don't use often, unless maybe we're describing blind dogs by the side of the road. "Command" is what used to be called an imperative, before everyone forgot what an imperative was.
It's saying, hey, do this! DO IT. It's a verb, you know. A verb! Have you heard of them?
So the line properly reads, "Command true patriot love in all thy sons." It's a command, see - a command to command. We're telling big ol' Canada what it should be doing.
So "in all of thy command" starts to fall apart and make less and less sense.
Somebody did suggest the almost-acceptable "in all of us command", which would at least make better sense. But nobody's rushing to adopt it, maybe because it just sounds "wrong".
OK then. Today I found the most howling (speaking of dogs) example of sentence-torture I've ever seen: and it was written by a publicist for a major book company. Because I might be beheaded for pointing out a mistake, I can't say the name, and I can't say the book, and I can't say the author, but I will pass along the clanger that rattled my teeth down to their silver fillings.
The book is one of those epics in which an ancient matriarch reflects back on her tumultuous life, her loves, her hates, her etc. etc. You get the idea. The usual page of bumph that comes with advance review copies attempts to boil down the elaborate plot into a few paragraphs: "Her rich and tragic life takes her from Chicago, where her fiancee is brutally murdered, and then to Cleveland, where she marries and finds happiness even as she survives the Great Depression and World War II."
Here it comes:
"Joyfully pregnant at forty-three, her husband, Joe Kinderman, mysteriously disappears and (xxx) moves to Washington, DC where she finds work as a cook for one of the most prominent families in the country."
This is during World War II, mind! It's long before transsexuals became so popular, before men turned themselves into women, or women into men who then became women, or at least had babies somehow. So this fellow Joe, even though he's about to disappear forever, says sayonara to his readers by becoming "joyfully pregnant".
But when you think about it, it's no stranger than dog owners who don't have any eyes.