Saturday, September 13, 2008

Today : I was a teenage grammar fascist

I am not a grammar fascist, I am all for the evolutionary development of language and all that. But that's not wholly true. Even though I hate language mavens and grammar fascists and would happily burn every book Lynn Truss has ever written there is a kind of clash between heart and head going on inside my very being. I can't help it, it's a kind of instinct. Even today I tutted towards the radio when the presenter used the word mute instead of moot (it's something that I've noticed recently, from people roughly under the age of 30. They don't know which to choose). Fact is that in spite of my intellectual take on the slippery, ever-changing dynamics of language, from a very young age it's got under my skin when people get it wrong.

The first time I can really remember trying to correct someone was when I was in middle school. Perhaps 11 or 12. Johno Mallen was the kinda cool kid that everyone hung around. He was striker in the football team, had older brothers with motorcycles and all that. Once, in a school football match I skinned four players on the right wing, did a Cruyff turn and put in a perfect cross for Johno to head in on the run. It was a perfect goal. So perfect, in fact, that the opposing team's coach, who was reffing, disallowed it for some made up reason. This made me so angry that I scored five more goals, fuelled solely by revenge.

Johno was always coming to school armed with pulpy, well-thumbed paperbacks full of sex and violence, and new swear words that he learned from his older brothers. One day he arrived with an insulting simile: 'You're like my urinate.' All day he went around saying to it to anyone who deserved a friendly chiding. 'Give me back my pencil, you div, you're like my urinate.'

And all day I remember thinking to myself. That is just wrong.! You cannot use the infinitive, Johno. Urine is the thing, urinate is the thing you do. You cannot use a simile that compares someone to a verb.

It didn't work of course. Thankfully Johno learnt another 'cool' insult from his older brothers and the phrase fell rapidly into disuse.

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