In seventh grade, my class met the Grammar Police, captained by Mrs. McCarty, who had taught school for approximately a century but had lost no enthusiasm for the English language. Every day she filled blackboards with sentences labeled “Diagram and Analyze.” Analyzing meant labeling every word as noun, verb, adjective, etc., a tedious process when her sentences got imaginative:
“Two men and a dozen sheep struggled up the path leading to a dilapidated house that stood at the edge of a high cliff near a misty forest in southwestern Canada, and even the sheep were exhausted when they arrived.”
If you think that’s easy to diagram, try it. In case you missed that educational experience, a diagram is an elaborate sentence-map with every word placed in proper juxtaposition to every other word. Diagrams for Mrs. McCarty’s sentences could fill an entire page of notebook paper, a´ la the one about sheep.
When I asked my grandson if he could diagram sentences, he said tactfully, “Well, actually, I don’t think people do that anymore.”
Well, actually, blackboards aren’t black anymore, but their green form is still useful, as far as I know. What happened to diagrams and decent grammar? Hot lava bubbles up from my interior when I get a note from someone who is supposedly educated, saying, “Sign this and return copies to Mr. Jones and I.”
“And what?” I hiss to myself. “Possibly you mean ‘to Mr. Jones and me.’ The last time I checked, ‘to’ was a preposition, to be followed by the first person pronoun, objective case, otherwise known as ‘me’.”
Mrs. McCarty lives.
In imagination, I whip out my chalk and diagram the accursed sentence on the blackboard (okay, chalkboard), proving that the word ‘I’, in this instance, is a flying saucer with no place to land.
“Sorry,” says the offender. “Me and my generation are more casual than things used to be.”
I faint. End Act I.
If my reaction seems extreme, consider this: Words are the tools of thinking, and for thinking to be anywhere close to clear, it’s not enough to spit out disjointed words, caveman style. Even U.S. presidents can’t get away with that, or once they couldn’t. Murdering language is a chaotic practice that alarms those interested in a relatively civilized life.
Then again, creating chaos is quite useful if your job is over your head. Bamboozle everyone with word salad. No one will be able to figure out what’s wrong.
Chaos is hard enough for sane people, but forget the sane. Those with a shakier grip on reality might grab a gun and start shooting.
Good grammar won’t stop mass murder, but order might help, and it will have to be a new kind of order, not the kind that tamed wilderness and created farms and cities. Our mettle is being tested, and we have to show up for the test.
Now we get to see how ingenious American ingenuity really is.