I think it’s repugnant to police other people’s language. I am too conscious of First Amendment rights to invade a stranger’s conversation with militant grammar. I do not phone 911 because I hear someone say “I could’ve went.” I cannot deny the error offends, but in New York City I tolerate it like an occasional odor that jumps from the curb after a week of heat.
In the absence of cleansing rain, I hold my breath, quicken my pace or just cross the street. But tolerance in the public forum does not justify bad usage in the classroom. There I want nothing less than Horacian perfection.
The standards of correctness I learned in the ’50s never relax. Ten years of Latin and nine of Greek at a Jesuit high school and college where classics were esteemed have left an indelible mark: syntax governs my life. Rules of agreement between subjects and verbs, pronouns and prepositions are cut in my memory like the Ten Commandments on stone. The injunctions of a permissive age “to go with the flow” and “hang loose” do not trouble me. They resemble ultraviolet rays rendered powerless by the sun block of grammar. With an SPF of 45, the extra protection acts against long-term word damage and prevents premature babbling.
Until recently, I thought myself shielded from exposure. Like many New Yorkers, I seek relief from a stressful routine at the movies. Drawn equally by the actors as by two hours of cinematic darkness, I went to see the latest hit. The movie, touted for the chemistry between male and female leads, seemed like good-natured fluff and worth the visit. The theater complex where the film played had multiple levels. After escalating up and presenting my ticket, I walked to theater 12. The door was shut and the area cordoned off while the theater’s interior was swept clean of popcorn boxes and cola cups. Meanwhile, the film’s two stars had drawn a large crowd. I stood in front of three young adults I remember seeing in the Lang Café. They might have been triplets, so interchangeable was the dialogue:
“I mean, it was like so gross,” said the first girl.
“Yeah, like I never saw why she hooked up with him,” her female friend added. “I mean, like, it wasn’t the money, you know.”
“Money,” their male friend said. “What money? It’s not like the guy didn’t take from her. I mean it’s like they’d go out and she’d pay, and like, he’d get drunk on beer, you know.”
“Hey, why did she?” asked the first girl. “Like, I mean he’s not cute, you know,” she added, offering what seemed conclusive proof.
“So what?” said the second girl. “It’s not, like, I mean you gotta be cute.”
At this arresting reply my patience crumbled, for the theater’s door was still shut. Like a refugee crossing shark-infested waters, I felt barred from the mainland… and then to be met by the likes of these.
“Excuse me,” I said, “but it’s been difficult not to overhear your vibrant exchange. May I offer an observation?”
Saying nothing, they stared at me as I continued speaking.
“At first I was thinking that if I had a dollar for every gratuitous use of your word like, I would be a wealthy man. In the absence of wealth, I’ll settle for the insight your conversation provides. Classicists know that Greek particles are units of speech expressing a connective link. If they follow the word on which they rely, they’re called enclitics. Up till tonight, I had no idea English was being shaped along classical lines. But your creative use of the words I mean, you know, and it’s like proves enclitics have entered the language with a vengeance. Before the film started, I needed to thank you and your generation for this astonishing enrichment. Whatever would we do without.”
They continued to stare and say nothing, for the doors had opened and the crowds were filing in. As the three friends took their seats, one of them suddenly looked back as if to say, “I know what you meant and I don’t like it.”
The pure grammar of that malevolent look set my mind at ease for I knew now enlightenment was possible, and I watched the movie with something approaching nirvanic bliss.
Joseph Roccasalvo is a professional writer.
His website is www.josephroccasalvo.com