My Grammar Ain’t So Good

grammarTrue confession: most of what I know about grammar starts with ABC. That’s why this post about language will devolve into math.

I’m certain that would be unwelcome news to the Sisters of St. Joseph who did everything in their power to make the prescriptive case for language. Their chosen texts, as I recall, were arranged in numbered sections, like a technical manual or the original organizational scheme of Roget’s Thesaurus.  Ever the contrarian,  I suspected even then that math belonged in its own realm and no good could come from scrambling the two.

No, it was School House Rock and my reading habit (and I use that word specifically for its negative connotations) that drilled me in the basics.  These 3-minute segments started appearing during the Saturday morning cartoon block in the early 1970s when I still planted myself in front of what my Dad called the idiot box for my weekly fix of animation.

David McCall, 1928-1999 Adman and co-creator of Schoolhouse Rock

David McCall, 1928-1999
Adman and co-creator of
Schoolhouse Rock

Schoolhouse Rock took the then still novel approach of using songs to teach lessons. Sesame Street had debuted in 1969, after my schooling was underway, and was in large part the work of educators. By contrast, Schoolhouse Rock was pure Madison Avenue, dreamed up by David McCaffrey, one half of the eponymous McCaffrey & McCall.

There’s actually a good reason he did this. McCall noticed his son could remember songs but not the multiplication tables. So he set about fixing that and, being an ad guy, sold the idea to ABC’s then head of programming, and agency client, Michael Eisner. As they say, it’s who you know

I’ve always thought the folks at Children’s Television Workshop, especially in its early years, put every under-employed denizen of Broadway to work. The East Side ad crowd went in a different direction. They hired jazz writers–Bob Dorough, Dave Frishberg–along with Broadway’s Lynn Ahrens and some jingle guys and launched a series that came to encompass not just grammar but civics, math the Bicentennial, science, computers and money.

You canshout it iwth adjectoves. Unpack Your ADjectoves, written by adman George Newall and sung by Blossom Dearie.

You can shout it with adjectives.
Unpack Your Adjectives
Written by adman George Newall and sung by Blossom Dearie.

Dorough and Frishberg sang their own songs with Dorough also covering the work of others. But the series also featured Blossom Dearie, Jack Sheldon and Grady Tate among others. If there’s  a reason I was able to listen to jazz as an adult it was helped along by this early, repeated exposure.

Other than making a case that no matter how hard I try I seem never able to escape the iron cage of  reading, music, advertising and Irishmen, what does any of this have to do with grammar? Well, recent reading set me to thinking and that’s always a dangerous place.

I have this inner nerd, over-exposed to natural science and engineering and educated in the science part of social science. The scientific method is ingrained, particularly the observe part. Here’s an observation: words are disappearing from use by writers.  Not just any words, certain words, specifically verbs whose past tense ends in ‘t’ rather than ‘ed.’

What's Your funtion? Connecting, of courseMusic and lyrics by Bob Dourough. Sung by Jack Sheldon

What’s Your funtion? Connecting, of course
Music and lyrics by Bob Dourough. Sung by Jack Sheldon

What caught my eye, in the May 23 issue of The New Yorker, was a sentence in a Jonathan Franzen piece about a trip to Antarctica. I’ve never had much interest in Franzen and didn’t read his big bestseller. A memoir of his father’s decline into Alzheimer’s was a fine and harrowing piece of writing. And an elegy cum bird watching piece about David Foster Wallace had moments of real beauty and pain. But the novels remain of limited interest to me.

Now about that sentence. He ends it, ” …a stop at the nursing home where my aunt dwelled. ” Not dwelt, dwelled  That  struck me as peculiar. It’s as peculiar as Dashiell Hammet‘s unease with lit. At least I’m presuming it’s unease. Exhibit A is The Maltese Falcon. Peruse this tasty tale and chain-smoking Sam Spade is the king of having lighted a cigarette. According to Amazon’s ‘look inside the book’ there are 8 lighted cigarettes in 217 pages. That’s roughly one every 25 pages and somewhat conspicuous.

Oh that there was a way to see if I’m just being hypersensitive. Luckliy the gnomes at Google have given us just such a tool: the Ngram Viewer. It allows you to compare usage of words over time. Let’s go to the graphs:

Here’s lit versus lighted (for all of these, click on the link to get the cool interactive version of the graph):

Ngram: LIghted vs Lit Lighted in Blue

Ngram: Lighted vs Lit, 1800-2000
Lighted in Blue

Now let’s look at Jonathan’s choice, dwelt versus dwelled:


Ngram, Dwelled vs. Dwelt, 1800-2000
Dwelled in blue.

Puzzling.  But clearly dwelt has been dying for a century. Let’s try one more. Here’s spelled versus spelt:


NGRAM, Spelled vs. Spelt, 1800-2000
Spelled in Blue.

Okay, it’s a mixed bag. I seem to be wrong about Hammett. And spelt is a little unfair because I’m betting more people are talking about it as a grain than a verb. Yet in two of three instances the ‘ed’ form has been gaining ground over the ‘t’ form.

If I ever needed proof that words were disappearing from use it’s right there. The better question is why?

A Modest Proposal: Help David McCall Rest. Teach Grammar Again.

A Modest Proposal: Help David McCall rest. Teach grammar again.

That brings me back to Schoolhouse Rock. Google ‘teaching grammar in elementary school’ and you’ll find all sorts of well intentioned articles like this one from The Atlantic a couple of years back. I’d have more sympathy if I didn’t live in a world where the response to the question “How are you?”  isn’t often “I’m fine. And  yourself?”

Schoolhouse Rock has been off the air since the 1990s. It’s possible some of today’s teachers were never taught grammar let alone got to absorb it in song. Editos and writers, too.

For me, this is too important to leave to chance. I watch these with my kids every chance I get.



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