Return of the Grammar Goddess

Run for cover--the English language is falling apart.

It's full-blown summer in Tucson--the season of weddings, afternoon naps, cicadas, cars as hot as toasters, agonizingly bored kids and free-floating obsession. The world outside is hospitable only at dawn and after sunset, so whenever possible, we all behave like invalids, padding around barefoot in the cool dimness of our artificial caves, leaving sweating tumblers of ice water here and there to mar the furniture.

Having spent an interminable adolescence in treeless, event-free subdivisions in Tempe and north Phoenix, I find the hunkered-down, vampiric quality of summer here weirdly satisfying. Besides, the swamp cooler's working great and I'm no longer stuck re-reading my father's Everyman's Library edition of Kipling. (And people wonder why suburban kids take drugs.) As long as the mail carrier keeps stuffing those magazines into the box, HBO keeps showing reruns of Curb Your Enthusiasm and keeps shipping UPS Ground, I'm happy.

Well, not happy, exactly. The stupefying sameness of life indoors offers so much opportunity for brooding. Not long ago, I swore off obsessing over politics--hey, I've always wanted to live in Canada--and have switched my major fretting to the disintegration of English. Yes, be afraid, be very afraid: The Grammar Goddess has awakened from her unquiet sleep.

Here too, I've put limits on my ain't-it-awful-ing. When I saw "bored of it" in The New York Times, I surrendered to random prepositions. Use of they/them/their as nongendered singular pronouns has spread far, far beyond politically correct academia--the original reservoir of infection--and is now a pandemic.

Lie versus lay? Another frill. Really, who cares?

There are other vanishing niceties that are harder to accept. Many pleasant things have slipped away and been lost in the last 2 1/2 years, but the saddest and least reversible dilapidation of all is the concept of singular and plural. Under the magical, gold-into-mud rule of our barely average commander-in-chief--you see, anybody really can grow up to become president!--even the basic structure of the language is turning to mush. Now that's leadership.

English is hard to learn as an adult, but no language should be difficult for native speakers. Learning language is the biggest job of babies and little kids, so the basics are hardwired by the time they start school. Man/men; child/children; I am, you are, he is--a first grader from an English-speaking home who had trouble with these would probably end up in special ed or with a hearing aid. It used to be that you never heard mistakes with this stuff. That's changing as I type.

A couple months back, I was startled by this on a nationally-aired commercial: "Do you have what it takes to be an X-Men?" And not long ago, the Dell coughed up a spam e-mail urgently asking, "Is your files protected?"

Awful, I thought, but these must be the errors of the young, who appear to be evolving into cyborgs. My husband teaches at the UA, and for the last few years, it's taken more and more beer to get him through a set of papers--every semester is worse than the last. (The current No. 1 reason for retiring early from the UA English Department? Never having to read another essay by a functionally illiterate English major.)

I had that all settled in my mind when I got around to reading the spring newsletter from my son's old elementary school. (No, I will not contribute generously to the annual fund.) The school is an intensely self-conscious institution that prides itself on offering a rigorous, old-fashioned and fairly spendy learning experience. And Dave did, in fact, get a decent education there; his English teacher was especially fine.

Anyway, in the first paragraph of the newsletter, I encountered the following in the Message From the Headmaster: "Nor is it always measurable and obvious the fruits of those efforts." And friends, it was not a fluke. Later on in the same paragraph: "Right in step with them and allied with our faculty is our parents, grandparents and parishioners."

Personally, I find this terrifying. What scares me is not so much that the guy writes so badly, but that he didn't bother to get someone to help. I mean, this thing goes out from a principal's office, decorated with arty shots of Rome and Florence, to parents who are paying through the nose for literacy, plus being hit up for more. I can only conclude that getting the verb "to be" wrong must be on its way to being A-OK.

It's one thing to have a president who doesn't know the difference between "is" and "are"--he only represents America to the rest of the world. (Besides, George Will keeps trying to balance Bush out a couple times a week by rushing to the opposite pole of terrible English. In the Star recently: "The liberals' conundrum is condign punishment for the discordance between the way they talk and the way they live." Condign?)

But principals who can't tell the difference? Oh, man.

Folks, the schools is in trouble. English are devolving. And the answer to our president's famous question, "Is our children learning?"

"No, they isn't."