In defense of the humble adverb and other tragic battles
The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.
We tend to look through language and not realize how much power language has.
I hear their plaintive cries all around me. I hear them every time I hear someone say “hopefully” before anything other than an adverb. I hear them when someone says “I seen” under any circumstance. I hear the silent wail of anguish from every sign that includes “thru.” The cacaphony is deafening. “Qwik-E-Mart” and “bling” and “E-Z Pay” and “lite” – all lamenting their pain at full volume everywhere I turn.
I have been told with no small degree of self-righteousness and snark that language is a living entity and is ever-changing. True enough. It was only in the 1400s that English spelling even began to become standardized, and even then, there was opposition. As the world changes, there must be terminology to go with these changes. I get that. But still – bling? It’s baby talk. It’s the sound diamonds make in cartoons when they sparkle. Seriously. It’s an insult to human intelligence.
It seems to me that, instead, we should strive to stay on our highest linguistic ground. After all, English is a noble language in so many ways. We have about a million words, which gives us leeway to express most anything we want in most any way we wish. It is used by 750 million people worldwide (at least) and is actually the language of choice of several of my friends for whom it is not their language of origin. One dear friend, in particular, tells me it allows her to express precisely what she means to say instead of having to dance around her topic using her birth language, hoping her audience understands her intent.
I speak six languages myself, so I understand what she is saying. In order of competence (in case you’re curious) English (native), Spanish (nearly bilingual), French (good but a dictionary would be helpful), Russian (still learning), Hebrew (for prayer) and Italian (best for reading and comprehension; my darling Italian teacher passed away). My most powerful language for expressing emotion is Spanish. There’s no language in which I can be more loving or more enraged. It’s the language I spoke to my newborn granddaughter, weeping tears of joy. When I hear tell of a new horror in the misguided war on wolves, I use the phrase “es una rabia,” which can only be described in English as a screaming, spitting, hair-tearing, teeth-gnashing outrage; here, Spanish puts it perfectly with far more succinctness. But if I want to describe a circumstance, give details – pretty much describe anything with precision, so far English is winning.
So why am I seeing people continue to mutilate this gorgeous language, sometimes with full knowledge of what they are perpetrating? How many otherwise well-educated people do I hear using the word “hopefully” as a lead-in to a plea for a situation they hope to see come to pass? “Hopefully, we’ll all grow antlers and do the antler dance far into the night.” “Hopefully, my ex-son-in-law will get a painful, incurable itch where it does not do to scratch.” No. Hopefully is an adverb. It describes an action and “hopefully” is the way in which that action takes place. “I looked at him hopefully, praying that the blade would miss my extended neck.” Now that is being hopeful! Let’s try this again:
“I hope we all grow antlers and do the antler dance far into the night.”
“I hope my ex-son-in-law will get a painful, incurable itch where it does not do to scratch.”
And while we’re at it, conjugations of “to see” go like this:
“I have seen the coming wave of flesh-eating zombies clawing their way over the bodies of their fallen fellows.”
“I saw the baby bat cuddled up adorably, sucking on her binky.”
Also: “through,” not “thru” and “light,” not “lite.” I don’t care if they are in the dictionary. No, no, and furthermore, no.
The truth is, I don’t know the terminology of grammar. They rounded up the top English students in 1968 and 1969 and taught us a system called “Roberts English” which, to my knowledge, vanished without a trace thereafter. Thus it is that I have no clue how to diagram a sentence. I have no idea what a “third person object indirect with a C-minor diminished flat” could possibly be.
However, I do know what is correct and what is not. I know that not every term coined by humans deserves to be admitted into the august annals of dictionaries by those word harlots who run whatever organization is in charge of determining which word gains admittance and which is rejected with pointed finger in a distant direction. Yes, off, foul miscreant, to languish and die in ignominious anonymity.
In the meantime, a little more emphasis on language in the schools would not come amiss. Shall we then, please, produce children who can spell, punctuate and capitalize? Can we put a little emphasis on creating a solidly structured sentence? Language is powerful and the command of it is a source of individual power. We thrive as a nation in an often better-educated world when we are able to use our own language with skill and ease. Judging by what I’ve seen coming out of high schools, the U.S. command of the English language is in dire trouble and getting worse.
Do we really want to sentence our children to being linguistic also-rans in an articulate world?
This is dedicated to all my fellow warriors in the war to preserve the beauty of the English language.