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.