Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Role of Grammar in a Marriage by Sharon O'Donnell

I was watching a game show the other day and was perturbed when the host laughed at one of the contestant’s Southern accent. This has always bothered me. I remember watching game shows when I was a kid, like Match Game & $10,000 Pyramid. It seemed every time there was a contestant with a Southern accent on the show, they were teased and mocked – all in good fun I’m sure. Nonetheless, it used to irritate me because contestants with other accents or dialects were left alone, perceived, I guess, as normal. I went to broadcasting school at UNC-Chapel Hill and did my best to achieve the recommended ‘mid-western sound’ of no accent at all. But my Southern accent still lingers, and that’s okay. It’s part of my heritage.

There have been a few times in the past, though, that my accent has caused me some embarrassment. When I was a freshman in college, I dated a Duke student who was from upstate New York. I’ll never forget the time I told him our football seats were under the cement overhang so we’d be protected from the forecasted rain. I pronounced the word ‘cement’ as ‘sea-ment’ with emphasis on the first syllable, the way I’d grown up hearing it. He said, “Pardon?” and then paused, trying to decipher my meaning. Then he smiled and said, “Oh, you mean cement,” saying the word without the long ‘e’ sound and stressing the last syllable. He seemed amused. I wanted to yell, “Haven’t you ever seen The Beverly Hillbillies? It’s the ‘seament pond’, not the cement pond!” I refrained, however, realizing that the Beverly Hillbillies were not exactly authorities on proper pronunciation.

Then there was the time I was at a staff holiday party at one of my first jobs when I asked a co-worker, “Are you going to put the record on?” Everybody started laughing because I had said ‘own’ instead of ‘on’. I knew the difference of course and in a public speech I would have used the correct pronunciation; but, this was in a supposedly relaxed setting when I could let my guard down.

Even our grammar usage has some of its roots in where we were brought up. My husband and I used to bicker about his use of the words 'take' and 'bring'. He would say to me while sitting in our family room, "I need to bring the car in tomorrow to have the tires rotated."

"You need to take the car," I would say to him, relying on the grammar courses I took as a journalism major at Carolina.

"That's what I said. We need to bring the car to the tire place." He saw no difference in the usage of these two words, that 'bring' indicates motion toward the speaker and 'take' indicates motion away from the speaker. Not a big deal, I know, but just one of those petty things that drove me up the wall. Besides since he was in business and gave speeches regularly, I thought it would benefit him to know the proper usage. I finally dug through my old college books and found my usage and style textbook, flipped to the bring-take rule, and showed it to my husband.

He was not impressed. Saying “bring” was what he was used to saying, therefore it sounded fine to him. The book even explained that people from the northern part of the United States are more prone to saying “bring” for “take”, and my husband’s family is originally from New England. It was then I understood why he insisted on saying ‘bring’; it was a part of his own heritage. I decided to give up and try not to let it bother me anymore; I’ll let him say ‘bring’ as long as I can say ‘seament’. Yet, when I hear one of my sons doing this because they hear their dad doing it, well, then it becomes a problem again. I want to try to make sure my boys have some basic good grammar skills. Even when they were young, I was aware of the need for this; it’s never too early to start gearing up for the SAT.

Once Jason threw a basketball at Billy and hit him in the face, accidentally of
course. They came inside with five-year-old Jason yelling, “Mom, I throwed a basketball and hit Billy right in the face!”

Being the concerned mom that I am, I said calmly, “It’s ‘threw’, not ‘throwed’.”

Billy replied, “Ah, mom, I don’t think that’s the main point of what he’s saying here.”

Another time my boys’ grammar just above drove me insane was when Billy, a big Carolina Hurricanes hockey fan, wrote on the car windshield during play-off season, “Lets go Canes!” That’s ‘lets’ with no apostrophe as it should be in the contraction for ‘let us’. I couldn’t stand driving around town with everybody thinking I didn’t know better. What really got me was that Billy and David are both honor students, but when they write stuff on car windshields it’s like they forget every bit of correct grammar they ever knew. I know it shouldn’t bother me the way it does, but I can’t help myself. Something comes over me when I see signs on a door that say, “Employee’s Only”.

I think I must get this from my mother. A number of years ago she was in the hospital for major surgery. Since she was 80, the doctors had said her recuperation period would be slow, and she might be kind of out of it for a while. As she lay ‘napping’ in her hospital bed, my siblings and I were discussing what visitors she’d had that day. One of us said something about ‘a lady from church and her daughter-in-laws came over’. Suddenly, my mother’s eyes flew open, and she said, “daughters-in-law”.

We turned to her, surprised. “What?” we asked.

“Daughters-in-law,” she repeated. “That’s the way you say the plural of daughter-in-law.” We all just looked at each other and smiled. We knew Mama would be well in no time, which she was.

In our household, the misuse of lay and lie still is a problem, and no matter how much I explain the difference to my guys, they revert to using the words incorrectly. I still remember the time when Sesame Street’s Elmo was so popular, and we had one of those talking stuffed Bed Time Elmos who said various remarks about going to sleep when you squeezed his hand. I noticed right away that one of the remarks used lie and lay incorrectly and was glad that soon after there was coverage in the media about this and how bad it was that cute little innocent Elmo was leading the youth of America grammatically astray. “See,” I told my family, “other people are bothered by this too.” Of course, Jason still played with the furry, red toy, but every time Elmo said something like, “I’m tired. Let’s lay down,” I’d add, “That should be lie down, Jason.” As if Jason gave a damn.

A few years ago, Kevin and I attended his cousin’s son’s wedding. At the reception, when the handsome groom was making a speech, he thanked everyone for coming and said, “It means a lot to Jennifer and I.” He suddenly stopped, a look of horror on his face, and turned to his beautiful bride who was getting ready to say something to him. He held up his hand to stop her, and said, “I mean, to Jennifer and me.” Then he laughed and added, “I still have to work on that.” Everyone else laughed, too, but I reveled in it and looked around for Kevin because the me/I thing was one of our most hotly-debated grammar questions. Actually, ‘debated’ is the wrong word choice because ‘debate’ implies he had an opinion on the topic and argued it, when really he just didn’t care whether he said it correctly or not. I wondered if in twenty years the groom would still be so concerned about using the proper grammar that obviously his new bride had encouraged him to do. I hoped so. But I doubted it. He would probably still be saying I instead of me, and it would be driving her out of her mind. She’d say, “Remember, honey, at our reception when . . .”

So in our study is a fine assortment of grammar books I’ve collected over the years for the guys, such as Painless Grammar, Grammar Smart, and Grammar for Dummies. My hope has been that when they’re doing their homework and have a question about word usage or run-on sentences, that they, with their thirst for knowledge, will grab one of these books and look up the correct answer. But the books remain on the shelf in pristine condition, unopened since the day I got them.

One time 15-year-old David said he was going to bring his baseball pitching net over to a friend’s house. “You’re going to take it over to a friend’s house,” I told him.

“Yeah, that’s what I said.” And with that he was out the door.

I’ve got to learn there are some battles I’m never going to win. I doubt grammar problems are one of the leading reasons for divorce, but then again, couldn’t that be part of ‘irreconcilable differences’?

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