More “Is We Getting Dummer?” Horrors


I was having a quick sandwich before my flight at Reagan Airport and could not avoid hearing in excruciating detail the conversation next to me. It appeared to be some kind of staff meeting among business colleagues traveling to a common destination. One of the young professionals, a man in his early 30s, must have said “That’s incredulous” or “I find that incredulous” four or five times. Nobody corrected him; maybe none of the other four mature, supposedly educated people at the table knew that he was misusing a high school vocabulary word, though that’s a horrible thought.

For a moment I entertained thoughts of pulling him aside, like old Biff in “Back to the Future 2” encountering his younger self, whom he told “It’s ‘make like a tree and leave,’ not ‘make like a tree and get out of here’—you sound like an idiot when you say that!” Except that I would have said, “It’s incredible, not incredulous! People will lower their opinion of you when you misuse words. Pay attention! Read! Learn to speak properly!”

If schools won’t or can’t educate competently any more, and the culture is determined to make us dumber by the day, then it is up to us to help each other out. How many times do you think that young man had used incredulous when he meant incredible? How many people—friends, relatives, colleagues—had heard him do it, knew better, but said nothing, leaving him to embarrass himself again? How many new acquaintances, dates, potential employers, had heard him misuse the word, and silently, unconsciously, lowered him in their estimation, perhaps fatally and permanently?

“Rizzoli and Isles” was starting its new season this week, so my wife and I were catching up with the last few episodes of last season, which we mostly missed. In one of them, Rizzoli sprained her ankle, and her side-kick, Isles, who is a doctor, asked her how she was feeling. “I’m fine,” came the reply, whereupon Isles, certain that the police detective was hiding a more serious injury, said, disdainfully, “Fine is an adverb.”

Fine is a noun. Fine is a verb. Fine is an adjective, which is how Rizzoli used the word. Fine is not an adverb.

This line had to be written. It had to be memorized and rehearsed. It had to be directed and filmed, and there were two actresses in the scene. Probably 50 people had an opportunity to stop a completely false statement about third grade grammar go out to millions on cable TV, and not one of them stopped it. The result? America got a little bit stupider.

If we don’t treat our growing ignorance and stupidity as a national crisis requiring us to “see something, say something,” with an obligation to tell each other that we are talking, writing and thinking like semi-literate clods thanks to our sad and broken educational system and our careless and anti-intellectual pop culture, we will all wake up some day unable to communicate without saying “ain’t ” and “irregardless,” and thinking that Joe Biden is one smart guy.

Tolerance has its place, but tolerating ignorance is unethical, unkind, and ultimately ruinous.

113 thoughts on “More “Is We Getting Dummer?” Horrors

  1. Absolutely true. But I have encountered just one little stymie while attempting such “corrections”: People don’t like to be told that they are wrong. And the icing on the cake –> some of them hold high degrees in abusing! :-p

    • It isn’t just grammar and/or syntax, either. I suffer from OCD when it comes to spelling, and feel compelled to correct someone whenever I see that they have misspelled something. I have also been screamed at for my trouble. So, predictably, I think twice about making such corrections the next time. I guess it can be a little embarrassing to have a mistake pointed out, but some people act like you’d just accused them of being a child molester….

      • I know that feeling in and out Karl 🙂 sometimes I wonder which one is worse: correcting them and getting fired upon with some top-of-the-line sarcasm like, “Yeah right Mr. Know-it-all. Why don’t you mind your own business?” or not correcting and spending sleepless nights later.

      • Please note that there should not be a comma in “spelling, and feel” above. The latter clause is a dependent clause, as the subject “I” leading the sentence is the subject of “feel”.

  2. “A finely tuned piano” as opposed to “he fine tuned the article, admitting a narrow exception that breaks grammatical rules”.

    From the “a stopped clock is right twice a day” Department.

    A fine article nonetheless, deserving neither censure nor fine. Who’d fine you anyway?

  3. I am currently (note: not presently, which means something else entirely, as you know) experiencing something similar with a new colleague of that generation. The thing that truly bothers me, however, is the arrogance these people have. I was even told disdainfully that I was wrong about something when I corrected this person in the middle of an editing project. I assured her that I was not. After saying that she had researched it herself, she looked it up again, and found that the geezer happened to be right. (She doesn’t know whom she is messing with, does she, Jack?)

    • One might pedantically argue that since this comment was written at 6:30 AM, you were not CURRENTLY experiencing your colleague’s behavior, as you were probably at home. You had perviously experienced it, and had every expectation to believe that you’d presently be experiencing it again though.

      Sorry, couldn’t resist 🙂

  4. I agree completely, which is why I am sure you will gracefully concede that the young man did not embarrass himself at all, though quite possibly it embarrassed you, particularly since it didn’t embarrass him. That is a U.S. solecism that I have noticed, in which the speaker wishes that the person concerned were embarrassed, but in actual fact he isn’t in the slightest – which irritates the speaker no end, but is no excuse for spuriously ascribing the person concerned a sense of embarassment that is in stark contrast to the real state of affairs.

    By now, I may have embarrassed you, but I can assure you that you didn’t embarrass yourself. To have managed that, you would first have had to have caught your own error – yourself.

    • Good one. I still think the concept of one engaging in conduct that the individual would find embarrassing his currnt conduct if he were aware of it or better informed (or better bred) is a usefuk one that the idiom, since it is widely used and of long history, aptly communicates. Thus, when I say, “Stop, you’re embarrassing yourself” as shorthand for “Boy, if you weren’t an idiot you’d be embarrassed, but since you are, you’re not,” I have never once received the rejoinder, “Actually, I can’t be embarrassed until you explain why you think I will feel embarrassed or should feel embarrassed, though YOU are embarrassing me, but that’s not the same as embarrassing myself, and that can’t be what you’re alluding to.” In other words, its a phrase widely understood, accepted, used in literature, but not literally correct. A useful idiom, and I’ll keep using it.

  5. “‘Just before I left home this afternoon, a letter arrived for Tom from Sir Watkyn Bassett. . . [D]o you know what was in it?’


    “‘It contained an offer to swap the cow-creamer for Anatole, and Tom is seriously considering it!’

    “I stared at her.

    “‘What? Incredulous!’

    “‘Incredible, sir.’

    “‘Thank you, Jeeves. Incredible!'”
    (P.G. Wodehouse, The Code of the Woosters, 1938)

      • It took me longer to think of how to plausibly work those in than it would have to write a normal comment twice the length- I wanted three but it was early in the morning.

          • Getting rather than becoming? True, although I’m not that much of a grammar stickler outside of formal writing. I’ve been known to start sentences with “but” and end on a preposition, too. I’m OK with less than three (and THERE is my third!)

              • Thanks chief. You do know we’re talking about fundamental misuse of the spoken word rather than pedantic written grammar that poses no barrier whatsoever to comprehension, right?

                • It should be “Thanks, Chief.” And your joke belies your claim that the issue is solely about oral errors. You were pointing out three intentional written errors. I found a fourth unintentional one. Somehow you contend your three intentional errors are relevant, but you contend your unintentional error, though within the same framework, is not relevant. This is fallacious.

                  You may call it “pedantic written grammar”, but correct use of commas can save a life. It is the difference between “Let’s cook, Billy” and “Let’s cook Billy”.

              • I think that– if the writer’s intent is for the reader to pause for effect, then commas are appropriate. However, I’d also contend, in punctuation, if some *more* appropriate punctuation exists, then it ought to be used. In this case, an ellipsis is more appropriate to induce a pause.

  6. And this whole discussion just reminded me of my favorite off-color grammar joke. It would seem that Noah Webster’s wife came home early one day and found him helping the housemaid to “move the bed against the wall” so to speak. With her hands on her hips she shouted “Noah! I am surprised at you!” to which he responded “My dear, Margaret and I are surprised. You are merely astonished.”

  7. Did it escape your attention that you wrote this (emphasis mine, for emphasis):

    “If schools won’t or can’t educate competently any more, and the culture is determined to make us dumber by the day, then IT IS UP TO US TO HELP EACH OTHER OUT…”

    Why didn’t you help the poor guy out then?

    If you think we have a moral duty to correct people’s grammar, and you suffered this violation of grammar four or five times without correcting it, you’re just as guilty as his friends, relatives, colleagues, new acquaintances, dates, potential employers, etc.

    Which makes you complicit in the very thing you’re complaining about.

    Which makes you a hypocrite.

    Which we all are, which is totally fine…
    except you’re making moral pronouncements about how people OUGHT to behave, how they OUGHT to speak, how they OUGHT to conduct themselves in public.

    You ought to be ashamed of this post.

    • Wrong, and your reasoning is pathetic.

      I wrote that the guy was in a meeting. I wasn’t part of it, I was, involuntarily, eavesdropping. I actually have corrected strangers under similar circumstances in the past, but not when the individual was in a large group, a contentious meeting, in a professional context, where I would be embarrassing him in front of four other people, undermining his advocacy in what ever he was arguing about, disrupting a business meeting, and butting in. The Golden Rule applies here, you see. I would want someone to correct me in a one-on-one situation. I would NEVER want someone to interrupt a business meeting in front of colleagues and make me look foolish.

      Ethics involves balancing, and the right thing in the abstract may not be the right thing when it has other, undesirable, unethical consequences. Notice that I referenced the scene in “Back to the Future, 2.” In that scene, there are only the two participants. I assumed alert and intelligent readers, of which I have many, would understand why I didn’t butt in to a business meeting, sidetracking it, and undercutting the very person I was supposed to be assisting.

      Also, not to cover all the ways your comment is obnoxious, silly and ignorant, because it’s not worth the time, there were no “moral pronouncements” in the post at all, and you don’t know what “hypocrite” means. Even if it were appropriate for me to interject myself into the meeting, which is it was not, there are often times when a make an instant decision how to handle a situation, and later, analyzing it, determine that I should have acted differently. Contra to your complete misunderstanding of ethics, writing a post about a better way to handle a past episode is not hypocrisy, but enlightenment. But I would have handled this one the same way I did even if I had written the post first, because, you dolt, other factors were involved. In the “Rizzoli and Isles” situation? I can’t count the number of times I have flagged language mistakes before they were publicized, broadcast or performed.The topic is ethics. One ethical principle is that it is wrong to intentionally distort and ethics post in order to make a gratuitous insult while ignoring the obvious. Are you always like this? I mean, dense, mistaken, unfair,arrogant and insulting all at once?

      • Yikes. You sure are ready to pounce on people arentcha!

        Just a helpful hint, one ethicist to another, if your blog “is dedicated to starting discussions, not ending them”, it’s not an awesome idea to refer to new commenters as: unalert, unintelligent, obnoxious, silly, ignorant, dense, mistaken, unfair, arrogant and insulting dolt[s]. (Although to your credit, I am frequently all of those things at once.)

        I didn’t suggest you interrupt the meeting, Jack. I simply asked why you didn’t help him out.

        To which you might have answered “Because I would NEVER want someone to interrupt a business meeting in front of colleagues and make me look foolish, and I didn’t make it a priority to stick around waiting for them to finish so I could pull him aside and correct him in private. That’s why I didn’t help him out.”

        That would have been a perfectly reasonable- and polite- response to my question. We all see what I got instead.

        Also this post, and your blog in general, is FULL of moral pronouncements.
        If you can’t recognize them when you write them, I’d be happy to point them out to you. Perhaps you’d like to correspond privately about that.. I wouldn’t want to undercut you in front of your colleagues.

        Finally (I assume), I agree with you 100% that “People will lower their opinion of you when you misuse words.” I wish this wasn’t true, but we both know it is, don’t we.

        • 1. My blog, my definitions of moral, John. Look it up. I make it clear what I regard as a moral pronouncement in the definitions. You want to call anything I say a moral pronouncement (despite the fact that I don’t reference moral codes), go ahead. Just don’t do it here.

          2. Glad to get such a great example of the “you called my obnoxious, unfair gotcha out for what it was, and that’s unethical—ha! Trapped you!” card.

          3. I answered as I will always answer when someone accuses me of being hypocritical and says I should be ashamed of a post while misrepresenting what I wrote, distorting the facts at issue, while being snotty about it.

          4. Your comment was neither in good faith, well-intentioned, nor polite. You were showboating, and not very well. What was that, a test? You can bite me, John. You are a fraud. You make a false accusation on my blog, then say that you wouldn’t want to undercut me in front of your colleagues–after calling me a hypocrite? I’d consult my Jack Russell for professional advice first.

          5. I have encountered many characters like you in my travels, and in this field. They give ethics and ethicists a bad name. You could have engaged the discussion, as a first time visitor here, fairly and respectfully—instead you engineered a lame “gotcha!”, falsely accused me of hypocrisy, and then come back to say that my response to your inept and unjustified attack wasn’t polite enough….and posture as a mentor! Ridiculous.

          6. Get lost.

            • 1. I should have said “Please get lost.”

              2. You are welcome if you send me a sincere apology for your initial tone. I won’t see it until tomorrow—I’m enlightening lawyers in Atlanta. Some of the best, most valued and most helpful relationships here got off to similar rocky starts, we chatted, and all was well. It happens. I want independent and knowledgeable combatants. But I will not be insulted or condescended to on my own site.

              • “But I will not be insulted or condescended to my own site.”

                1) Starting with a conjunction
                2) Ending a phrase with a preposition- “condescended to”
                -Which I’d like to note is a perfect example of WHY ending prepositions should be acceptable. To fix that phrase in accordance with absolutist rules would require a great deal of additional verbiage, making a quick and concise reading impossible.
                3) Left out a preposition prior to “my own site”

              • Dear Jack,

                Although I’ve been reading your blog for years, and I’m very familiar with your method and style, only now can I fully appreciate your authority on the subject of ethics. I sincerely apologize for challenging that authority on your own website.

                In the future, should you allow me to participate in discussions, I will refrain from using the words “hypocrisy” and “ashamed” and other such abusive language.

                I would also like to apologize to your many readers for “slapping your wife’s ass and spitting in the nacho dip”, as it were.

                I’m afraid I may have been wrong in my assesment of your airport experience. On re-reading your reply I noticed the following:

                “…there are often times when [I] make an instant decision how to handle a situation, and later, analyzing it, determine that I should have acted differently.”

                In this statement I can detect a hint of the humanity I was searching for.

                We know the instant decision you made was to let the poor man go on thinking he’s well-educated when really he’s just a dunce, and I simply assume you decided, on further reflection, you should have corrected him somehow. Hence the above statement.

                With respect to the numerous issues you raised regarding my character, I feel it would be insensitive to take up your readers’ valuable time trying to defend myself against charges which were instigated by my own behavior, and have nothing to do with the blog post under which these comments now appear.
                I’m human, however, and if I don’t address this demerit head-on I may just start to think it’s accurate. So address it I have, but on my own blog, so as not to sidetrack the discussion you’ve engendered here. If you’d care to read the relevant post, it can be found here:

                If not, I understand.

                Please give my regards to the lawyers you’re enlightening. We all know lawyers need it more than most.


                John Puckett

                • P.S. You will clearly not be insulted or condescended to on your own site, but would you mind if I did so elsewhere? I promise I won’t tell you where, so you’ll never have to see it. But I’d feel awkward doing it without your permission.

                  • We ALL do it elsewhere. Buy me new nacho dip and you’re good with me, my wife only existed for the illustration so I’m not concerned on her behalf 🙂

                    • Hahahaha. This little spat between between John and Jack illustrates why it is difficult to correct anyone. Grammar needs agents to make it work while psychology works on its own. Grammar demands objectivity – “It is not grammatically correct because you feel it is correct. It is correct because IT IS correct.” We, human beings on other hand, demand subjectivity – “Thus, it is Jack’s blog, Luke’s wife (although just for the illustration :-p) and it is John’s absolutely important ‘responsibility’ to impose that he was not in the wrong, even if it happens on some other blog, and of course it is vital for me to write this comment to be able to eat my next meal properly! So, gentleman; It is Jack’s blog, Luke’s wife, John’s responsibility, and my compulsion. The question is: Whose grammar is it anyway? 😉

                  • Well, I think that was an achievement, if not a sincere apology.

                    But as I appreciate well-composed arch sarcasm and backhanded “civility” as much as the next person, having stooped to indulging in it myself in weak moments, I’ll treat this as an apology, even though it feels like a flaming bag of crap at my doorstep and go on from there.


                    Just to clarify, however: I know a fake apology when I see one, and this is a master of the breed.

                    Hostile and incurably nasty commenters don’t tend to last very long, but occasionally they do get tired of trying to prove they are smarter than everyone else and just try to be enlightening. I don’t have high hopes, John, but I’ve been wrong before, and you obviously have the ability to contribute, so with reservations, I’m happy to read what you have to say.

                    A sincere apology acknowledging what was wrong with your initial comment,, however, would have been appreciated, engendered trust and respect, and not incidentally, would have reflected better on you.

                    • By the way–anyone want to place this “apology” on the scale? I think it’s like James Spader’s faux apology to George Costanza: “George, all right. I’m sorry. I’m very, very sorry. I’m so sorry that I didn’t want your rather bulbous head struggling to find its way through the normal-size neck hole of my finely knit sweater.”

                      But maybe I’m being unfair…

                    • Well, it’s hard to pin it to an apology because it wasnt one. It was more or less:

                      “Oh! Ok, we can be friends because I was only calling you out for your mistake which you’ve admitted to making, which is all I’ve been saying this whole time! So we’re good”

                      Except, you didn’t make a mistake, you didn’t admit to making mistake, and that isn’t what he’d been saying the whole time.

                    • Thanks for allowing me to continue commenting Jack.
                      After a much-needed catharsis ( ), I’ve put this argument behind me.

                      I will not be hostile or nasty (anymore), but I will continue to question your authority on matters ethical and moral. Such questioning is confrontational by nature though, so if you simply won’t have it you should say so now.

                      If you’re ok with that, I’d like to begin by questioning this statement:

                      “…tolerating ignorance is unethical, unkind, and ultimately ruinous.”

                      Could you elaborate on just exactly what ignorance means in this context? Given the rest of the post, I assume it means ignorance of the proper use of the English language… but my assumptions about pretty much everything here have been wrong so far, so I’d appreciate a definitive statement about ignorance.

                      I’m wholly ignorant of the methods for producing a nuclear weapon from scratch, for example. I’m ignorant of the ways in which the Maori treat guests. I’m ignorant of how to diagram a sentence. If my friends and family continue to tolerate my ignorance regarding these (and many many other) subjects it certainly won’t be ruinous.

                      Which kinds of ignorance should we- as ethical and kind people- not tolerate?

                    • It’s a good question, and obviously, as you imply, one of my imprudent sweeping generalities. So to bring it into focus: I think we have an obligation to educate each other, which means NOT refusing to talk politics around the Thanksgiving table, pointing out a family member, friend’s or colleague’s poor reasoning habits (like rationalizations, or appeals to authority), and yes, correcting flat out errors. I also think we should not react defensively when we are corrected, but regard it as a gift and a kind act. I have elsewhere described it as the equivalent of telling someone they have spinach on their front tooth.

                      Does that mean challenging people in their core beliefs? Sure. Does it mean risking anger or embarrassing people? yes. Does it mean developing discretion? Yes. I’m saying there may be good reasons not to correct someone, or contend with a misconceptions…and you better be right.

                      I was at the Smithsonian at the Presidency exhibit, and a mother with two kids was telling them that their family was related to Franklin Pierce, and that he was a “great President.” I turned around and said, “Excuse me, but I couldn’t help but overhear. Franklin Pierce was a public servant and in many ways admirable, and any family that has him in their past should be proud. But he was a terrible President by any measure. I think it could be argued that its because he was sick and depressed, but still: the country was falling apart, and he really didn’t do anything.” I correct people in the next seat at baseball games when they say things like “good teams win the close games” (Bill James: “That’s like saying the fastest runners win the close races.) Or when someone tells his kid behind me “Baseball was invented by Abner Doubleday in Cooperstown NY.” “Well, no, actually, that’s not true…”

                      My quote master friend, Tom Fuller, who comments here, constantly calls me on imprecise word usage, and quotes, of course, like when I implied that Andrew Jackson said, “one man with courage makes a majority.” Just yesterday, I corrected a cab driver who referred to dinosaurs as “lizards, ” and explained about how they were almost certainly warm-blooded, and more related to birds than reptiles. He honestly said—“Hey! Thanks! I can’t wait to tell my kids!” A friend recently talked in passing about how “The House of the Rising Sun” was written by the Animals in the Sixties. I interrupted and explained that the song is more than a hundred years old, and the Animals just brought it back into public awareness.

                      And, damn it, when I heard someone talk about the LA anchor who mixed up Samuel L. Jackson with Laurence Fishburne, I set her straight too, because it didn’t happen.

                      We can all make each other smarter and better informed, and I think it’s a shared social duty that we shun too often. And it is important because ignorance is pretty much at the root of most of civilization’s failings, and fatal to a democracy.

                    • Alright, let’s distill:
                      1) we have an obligation to educate each other
                      2) we have an obligation to challenge people in their core beliefs
                      3) we have an obligation to develop discretion in our interactions
                      4) we have a duty to make each other smarter and better informed

                      Is this a fair characterization of the main thrust of the original post?

                    • You feel like you’re being set up because of “the feelings in your gut, the twinges in your conscience, and the sense of caution in your brain when situations involving choices of right and wrong are beginning to develop, fast approaching, or unavoidable.” Luckily for you this is merely an academic exchange and making the “wrong” choice won’t have any significant impact in the world.

                      Now in your lexicon, do these 4 statements count as moral pronouncements, or do you call them something else?

                    • John I’m not playing this game. If you see participation on this blog as your opportunity to show some kind of professional superiority, you can bite me. This is arrogant trolling, and obnoxious, and I’m not impressed.

                      The four statements are ethical conclusions. I have no standing to issue moral pronouncements. I am not a moral authority. I have no means of enforcement. They are reached by applying basic ethical values and principles, as well as those of societal obligations, to a problem. You can call it what you want.

                      Move on.

                    • I’m not playing a game either, so we’re in accord there. Not only do I not see this as a game, I see it as quite literally my life’s work.

                      I see my participation on this blog as an opportunity to engage in discussions about ethics with people who can be considered- if not expert- at least thoughtful on the subject.

                      That’s you. And your readers.

                      I continue to be astonished by your claims that I’m obnoxious and here for trolling. I thought trolling meant dropping an inflammatory comment here or there just to stir up trouble. I can assure you I’m not doing that. I am prepared to elaborate on, defend, or concede any point under discussion. But like you, I feel we have a duty to educate each other and I would be remiss were I to simply “move on” and leave the discussion altogether.

                      Regarding the “moral pronouncement” issue, I can see now it’s just semantics, and we wouldn’t be arguing about it if either of us used the other’s phrasing. So I’ll use “ethical conclusions” in deference to you.

                      If we can try this again…

                      When you arrive at an ethical conclusion, what’s your custom regarding alignment of your own behavior with that conclusion? Is alignment important to you, or is it a secondary consideration?

                    • It’s important.

                      Thanks for that clarification, and I respect it. I am not used to, nor crazy about, your inquisitorial style, but I’ll get used to it. (Probably).

                      Aligning my conduct with my ethical conclusions has infinitely complicated my life, to be honest. Most of us don’t think about ethics all the time, but I do, and presumably you do as well. That means that the ethics alarms are going off all the time. Indeed, that was the origin of the post that you thought I should be ashamed of. 20 years ago, I would have shrugged off that “incredulous,’ never considered doing anything about it or its larger consequences. Every day, without exception, I find myself bringing myself up short and changing my conduct according to something I’ve written or a basic ethical principle. Do I still violate my own ideals and conclusions? Yes, and I think about them and worry about them afterwards. I write about kindness, but I am sometimes unkind. I believe fervently in civility, but there are times in which I am not civil. And more.

                      Thinking about ethics is a pain in the ass, to be frank. It was much easier to be generally good (I had a great role model in my Dad), go by habit and instinct, use rationalizations liberally and without shame, and be like everybody else.

                    • We all violate our own ideals and conclusions. It’s a totally normal part of the human condition.

                      But thinking about violations afterwards demonstrates your commitment to self-improvement which ipso facto puts you on a different ethical level than a lot of people (a better one, to be clear). People like you, if you’ll permit the phrase, are rarely the ones who wind up in jail or on the front page; people like you worry the nuts and bolts, the detailing, the specs- lots of others just turn the key and stand on the gas pedal; people like you (people like US) are who we look to to help us slow down and consider things.

                      It’s a wonderful position to be in, having people look to you to be considerate.

                      It may have been easier to be like everybody else Jack, but your “promotion” up from the crowd is cause for celebration, not worry. Don’t be so hard on yourself.

                    • Thanks. But you now know why your initial “hypocrite” comment stung. I do feel often like a hypocrite. Nobody, at least not me, can be good enough to be in this profession from a position of exemplar…one is always an impulse away from “Do as I say, not as I do.” In my case, it is accentuated by an impossible role mode, a life-time Boy Scout of a Dad who bore the same name, a WWII hero, a character model in every way who managed to do it all effortlessly, or seemingly so. Yet even he was handicapped with biases.

                      My determination in this field is largely driven by my own conviction that given all of the advantages, familial, genetic and just lucky, that I have had, I should have accomplished much more of value and substance. So I feel there is an ethical duty to maximize one’s impact for good in society and the planet—a duty I know I have so far failed, and am likely to fail ultimately.

                    • Your dad must have been an expert.

                      The thing that makes experts experts is that they make everything SEEM effortless, like your dad did. But I bet he’d be the first one to tell you, it ain’t easy.

                      Check this out as an analogy:
                      That stuff takes an almost unimaginable level of skill, and the only way to get it is [the same way you get to Carnegie Hall].

                      We’re all going to fail our duties. Experts work HARD, every. single. day. trying not to.

                      Everybody can see that you do that. I’m sure your dad would be proud.

        • One might suggest that it’s not an awesome idea for a newcomer to call the host a hypocrite who should be ashamed of himself, because his general opinion (we should help make each other less ignorant by not letting things slide) didn’t perfectly jibe with a specific case (a total stranger having a meeting that Jack was not part of, where correction would have been intrusive and professionally embarrassing).

          If I’m helping to arrange a public block party, I could be ruled a poor host for telling a guest they are a boor and to get out- but not if he came in, grabbed my wife’s ass, and spat in the nacho dip.

    • I believe you and I have discussed the slow, miserable death of the adverb. Recently, I received an email from the local school district, of all places, regarding an impending snow storm. The email included a warning to “drive safe this afternoon”. I was quite tempted to print out a copy, correct it and send it back with a bright red “F” at the top.

      • You should have done so.

        I feel great pressure to correct the grammar of others, but I resist. I’m sure it will cause me years from now to suffer mental collapse.

        What baffles me is when I correct my children’s grammar, only to have people question why I do it.

        “Don’t hurt their self-esteem, you’re their dad, you’re supposed to be an encourager and an up-lifter… Don’t worry, the teachers at school will teach them properly.”

        I usually have a miniature aneurysm when I here those rationalizations.

        • I correct my children constantly. My almost twenty year old daughter has recently begun to correct herself. I’m quite proud of that and I tell her so. Like Jack, I spend an enormous amount of time in theatre which puts me in the company of college age kids for hours on end. I adopt them as my own, whether they like it or not, and correct their grammar, whether they like it or not. I consider it my duty. When i explain to them that all of their hard work, their all-nighters, their paper writing, their student loan debt is for naught when they open their mouths and spew bad grammar, they thank me. It’s when my contemporaries use bad grammar that I’m stuck. How do I correct them without coming across as a complete snot?

        • Tex, I would have a full-blown aneurysm upon hearing that the teachers will fix it, since the only thing schools are good for these days is indoctrinating young minds into the liberal mind-set. How long has it been since we taught CIVICS in Texas?

          • The closest thing the ‘education’ professional bureaucrats who run the show here considered to be Civics was a semester of political science in high school, where we were taught how Parties work and how vote buying works and how politically oriented lawyers can agitate to get what they want in the court system instead of the Legislature.

            The next closest thing was in middle school, when our general US History class or government class or whatever, gave us a quick summary of the constitution and a quick summary of the theory of checks and balances followed by passing commentary on the supposed problems of our system and the supposed unfairness of our government. The follow-on project was an assignment to design our own constitution which “fixed” the US’s. What a load of crap.

            My real civics lessons? Came from my family, my reading history on my own time, my church *gasp*, other self-education, and ultimately my time preparing for the military at Texas A&M.

  8. I’ve been doing a lot of documentation lately at work, something I’m not especially fond of. Unfortunately for me, I often end up doing a lot of it once people discover that it’s something I’m pretty good at.

    When I’m writing, I usually try to get at least two passes in. On the first pass, content is the only thing I’m worried about. It’s on the second pass that the actual proofreading comes in.

    And when I speak of proofreading, it’s not just spelling and basic grammar that I’m referring to. I’m talking about English mistakes that most people aren’t even aware of. But *I’m* aware of them, so my determination to correct them ALL ends up slowing me down.

    The subtle things like passive voice often get overlooked, and by the time I get down to obsessively correcting things like split infinitives and subjunctive clauses (I wish there was a simple description for those), my pedantry has gone above and beyond. And don’t get me started on leading conjunctions, it’s amazing how often those come up.

    But my favorite is the preposition, which you are not supposed to ever end a sentence with. However, it happens a lot because it’s a rule most people have never even heard of.

    I remember my High School English teacher had a kind-of funny way to show this rule off. He once quoted a sentence with no less than *5* consecutive prepositions that it ended with.

    But not one to leave things alone, I find myself thinking up ways that his example could be improved upon. So, just for fun, here’s what I’ve managed to cook up….

    “Mr. With, everyone knows that Mr. Inside is the most notorious, backstabbing contract killer that anyone from New Zealand has ever heard of. But what on Earth did you have to bring the names of the people whom his employers sent out Inside to off from behind over in Down Under up for, With?”

    So by stretching the parts of speech a bit, I managed to concatenate *13* common (and unique) prepositions for the sentence to end with. I hope there’s some sort of record book this might someday get published in!

    If not, I still like to think that it’s something Mr. Naugle would be proud of.


    • Split Infinitives
      I’ve never understood the debate. A verb describes action. An adverb modifies the description of that action. Taken together, an adverb + a verb = a different verb. If an adverb+verb = different verb, then that cluster of words should be treated as a single verb, therefore allowing the “to” “verb” to be ‘split’ by the adverb, because it really *isn’t* splitting it, if we view it as a new unique verb (regardless of having 2 or more parts). Of course, if splitting an infinitive creates such a clumsy gap between the “to” and the base “verb” which renders it unreadable as an infinitive, then need for clarity compels un-splitting the infinitive.

      I see no actual compelling argument for “split infinitives” to always be verboten. Oops….”to be always verboten”….er “always to be verboten”…..uh “to be verboten always”…. I like my original way better.

      Passive Voice
      What exactly is wrong with passive voice? I know it is to be avoided religiously in technical writing, but a general proscription? I don’t see why…

      Leading Conjunctions
      I agree these are wrong for logical thought reasons – a leading conjunction means someone thought they made a complete thought and then realized their thought was incomplete. This is why, artistically, I don’t see a major issue with it; if the writer wishes there to be a staccato or long pause between the thoughts, a period followed by the conjunction aids the reader in catching that subtlety…although I think ellipses are more proper for that effect.

      Ending Prepositions
      I’m undecided on this and acknowledge I am serious violator of the rule. I only slightly understand the “why not”. The error typically occurs in questions, does it not? Which makes sense, as questions, in English are usually accommodated by reordering the sentence structure, leaving those poor prepositions out on a lam, while the object they are associated with is often pulled to the front of the sentence.

      • With regards to passive voice, as a scientist I know that it is most certainly not ALWAYS incorrect. Any proper science paper is written in such a way to eliminate the operators and researchers from the formula. “Cells were treated with a dilution of…” “Samples were incubated at a temperature…”

        • Interesting. Then it isn’t improper in certain technical writing.

          Of course, the objective of “eliminating the operators and researchers” doesn’t work simply because they aren’t specifically named in the subject of a sentence…. the “cells” weren’t “treated with a dilution…” by nobody.

          • Not arguing, I understand the objective of making it look like there is no way human error or human bias could cloud the experiment. It’s just funny that passive voice is used to further propagandize the objective that the actual methodology of the experiment achieves.

          • Right. the idea is that if ANY human, robot, or trained ape did the steps I outline in my paper they should get equivalent results. Not that I necessarily buy into that, but it’s just the Way It’s Done ™ and woe betide the undergrad who turns in a lab report with “I started by…” rather than “The initial phase included…”

    • Dwayne, I read the question you made up several times. (Excellent!) Each time, I got lost as early as “…what on Earth…” Did you mean to say “*why* on Earth,” instead? I don’t understand why I am unable to get past “what” – and why I cannot stop expecting to read “why,” instead – in order to understand the question. Can you help?

      • ““Mr. With, everyone knows that Mr. Inside is the most notorious, backstabbing contract killer that anyone from New Zealand has ever heard of. But what on Earth did you have to bring the names of the people whom his employers sent out Inside to off from behind over in Down Under up for, With?”

        So by stretching the parts of speech a bit, I managed to concatenate *13* common (and unique) prepositions for the sentence to end with. I hope there’s some sort of record book this might someday get published in!”

        I think “stretching the parts of speech a bit” is an understatement.

        “But what on Earth did you have to bring the names of the people whom his employers sent out Inside to off from behind over in Down Under up for, With?”

        “But what on Earth…” … “…for…” (completed later) this is clever as well, it is technically a preposition, which according to SUPER PURIST rules should read “for what” to create a synonym for “why?” as you mentioned

        “did you have to bring…”…“…up…” (completed later) this is clever, but “bring up” behaves as a unique verb, despite being 2 words, and split by object of the sentence

        “the names of the people whom his employers”

        “sent out” verb, synonymous to “dispatched”

        “Inside” noun, name of a character in the story

        “to off” Verb, Infinitive synonym for “to kill”

        “from” Preposition</b

        "behind" Noun, location (attached to the previous preposition)

        over in
        “Down Under” noun, nickname for Australia

        “up” completes the verb “bring up” discussed above

        “for”, preposition which, properly placed, creates “for what”, a synonym of “why”

        “With” noun, name of a character in the story

        It’s a fun little brain game, but only uses 2 words as prepositions in the long end-of-sentence bit.

        • Tex, you’re too smart to be doing landscaping. Want to switch jobs? (I guess with that, I just blew my chances of your ever hiring me, no matter how qualified I might be.)

            • Tex, I sincerely did mean to compliment you. I am trusting that your “Thanks for the compliment!” is also sincere and not sarcastic, and am relieved to read your grateful response.

              I knew I was blurting, being hasty, and realized even before I posted the comment, intending to praise you, that I was being terribly sloppy about my wording. My words could have been taken as either sincere or sarcastic, and either way, they could have been received as a vicious insult. For example, one interpretation could have been to take my words as criticism of you, for doing a line of work that you are “so smart, it’s something you should not be doing” – as a snide way of saying, “You are not fulfilling your potential” – plus, as an arrogant dismissal or denial of the smarts that I am confident are essential to sustaining a landscape business. It is absolutely not my place to judge whether or not you are fulfilling your potential in whatever you do; such judgment absolutely was not something I was trying to convey. I meant: “The business you are in, and all your co-workers in it and customers of it, are surely far more lucky than any of them realize they are, to have your smarts on hand.” My next, “Want to switch jobs?” was intended to compliment you further, while simultaneously expressing (1) the doubts I was having at that moment that I am smart enough to be doing my current job, and (2) curiosity I have had for years about the landscaping business. (Seriously, I’m too debilitated for much more than office work.)

              But I didn’t want to slow down and edit myself, because I knew I would not have enough time to edit well. So I closed with that parenthetical, Eeyore-ish projection about ruining any chance I might have had to do landscaping with you, posted the comment “anyway,” and swallowed my dread that you might think I was being stupidly snotty to you.

              I do believe that you are well on your way to repeating being Commenter of the Year. I think Scott and one or two others may be working-up challenges, though.

              • Nope, there was no misinterpretation. I understood what you meant. Amusingly, I did imagine all the mean ways it could have been interpreted that you mentioned, but I’m not one of those on the look out for being offended.

        • Tex, you are 100% correct on all counts, and I’m flattered that you took the time to analyze it.

          The point was to string together as many different words in a row as possible that are commonly used as prepositions (starting with “out”). I couldn’t think of a way to get a 14th one jammed in there, or I would have.

          Did you catch my other bits of embedded literary dysfunction?


          • Sorry for the late reply, if this is no longer topical. I just wanted to say I appreciated the fact that not only did Dwayne’s sentences describing passive voice, split infinitives, subjunctive clauses, and leading conjunctions include an example of each one in turn (with an error in the subjunctive clause consisting of “was” instead of “were”, if I’m not mistaken; I surmise that was deliberate) but literally every sentence in the post ended either with a preposition or with a word commonly used as one. It’s a nice touch in a grammar discussion. I like subtle humor.

            I also appreciate texagg04’s breakdown of the sentence with the preponderance of prepositions.

  9. I have a question: in the course of my previous occupation, I dealt with many, MANY different people, with a wide variety of different vocabulary and grammatical skills. To be honest, I was almost forced to lower my speaking skills and be very careful how much of my vocabulary I used, simply to be understood by my clients. I will assume that that is ethical, since my goal was to ameliorate some level of suffering. However, over the years, I have found myself internalizing this voluntary “dumbing down”, to the extent that I have, myself, been the recipient of some few corrections, and my feeling is that the “corrector” is quite ethical in offering the correction. The question, finally, is: would I be just as ethical in making them sit through this obviously long-winded explanation in order to avoid embarrassment (mine) or should I simply thank them and go about my business?

    • If it’s one or two glaring errors in an otherwise educated individual’s speech or presentation, it should be flagged. It this us the language equivalent of the Augean stables, it’s futile, and no, there’s no obligation or point.

  10. It is not only the ignorance of grammar and word use, but the language used by politicians and far too many ‘journalists’ (I use that noun with great skepticism) is absolutely rife with stupid euphemisms, cliches, rank hyperbole, meaningless metaphor. What happened to “in the future …..” now it is “going forward”. Who the hell is (are) the “international community”? “The situation “on the ground” — where in the hell else would it be? What is wrong with the simple words “the situation is ……”. “Boots-on-the-ground” rather than military personnel, soldiers, marine. Just a few days ago, an individual talking about the Baltimore City public school system said “we haven’t been able to move the needle”, meaning there has been no significant academic improvements. And that absolute boob of a politican, Chuck Schumer, one used the expression “the bottom line five times (I counted them) in as many sentences.

    I could go on and on, and probably have gone on too long already, but it is absolutely appalling what has happened to our rich language. Mark me, I love good writing, and the use of metaphor and analogy is important in literature — it has no place in journalism or reporting, where clear, unambiguous language is required.

  11. Pingback: On Hypocrisy | Ethics for the Noncompliant

  12. Two thoughts:

    1. Howard Cosell and “tell it like it is,”rather than “tell it as it is” was the begiining of this kind of stuff.

    2. Winston Churchill (I think) said something along the lines of “This nonsensense about not ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put.”

      • Rewriting the copy as “Winston cigarettes taste the way good cigarettes should taste” ignores the poetic license taken. If you begin challenging poetic license, I shall be forced to recite Hamlet’s famous “Should I continue to exist, or should I not continue to exist?” soliloquy.

    • It’s not a courtroom. He’d have banned you by now. Without intent to put words in our Jack’s mouth, the good-natured string of responses to your apology is probably enough of a sign that you’re good to go 🙂

      • Thanks Luke. You’re probably right. But I would hate to assume, so I’ll just wait for Jack’s response. I hope you understand.

        Also, just between you and me, I feel it’s important for a person to acknowledge an apology when they receive one, particularly if they asked for it specifically. Not only is it common courtesy (Virtue # 2, sub-section B: “courtesy”), it also give the offended party room to practice his or her ethical conduct (Enabling Virtue #7: “forgiveness”)

    • John, in fact I haven’t seen it, so I don’t know how you can say “you know I’ve seen it.” I just did a search. I sent you an e-mail just now, so just paste in whatever you sent before. I’m sorry—I have been on the lookout. I didn’t intend for this to be like the Vietnam peace negotiations…

  13. Oh what joy I have had reading all responses. Especially the comments concerning ending a sentence with a preposition. Reminded me of a story my dear little mum told me. My mum, during WWII, was a telephone operator. One evening she received a call from an extremely iniberated man. She was not sure what he was saying due to his slurred speech. “Yes sir, how may I help you?” “Swhere ish (drunk bla bla bla).”
    Mum inquired a few more times trying to help this gentleman only to have him slobber his response. Frustrated, finally my mother said “SIR, WHERE ARE YOU AT?” His reply, although slurred, clearly stated, “LAdy, don’t end a shentence wish a preposition!” As she told this story to me, she said “I think he was an English Teacher.”

    Sorry, couldn’t help but share this story.

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