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Jack Smith

A chief justice pronounces judgment, a colleague concurs--and the buzzards pounce

November 24, 1986|Jack Smith

My esteemed friend and colleague Gladwin Hill, a few of whose complaints about the vulgarization of the language were recently published here, has been savaged by the Jack Smith Irregulars.

This aggressive band is composed of readers who constantly circle over my head, like buzzards, waiting for me to make a mistake in spelling, grammar or syntax, upon which they descend in full cry.

The reason for their ferocity, I suspect, is my boast that I allow myself only two mistakes a year; naturally, such hubris is bound to arouse the vigilante spirit.

By quoting Hill, however, I have neatly diverted the Irregulars from my flesh to his. It is bad enough to err; it is worse to err while implying one's own righteousness.

Specifically, Hill applauded Chief Justice William Rehnquist for rebuking a lawyer who had used the word irregardless .

"I feel bound to inform you," the chief justice is alleged to have said, "that there is no word irregardless in the English language. The word is regardless ."

Hill also deplored the use of the spelling alright , saying there is no such word, and the spelling barbeque for barbecue , a misnomer apparently deriving from the notion that the word was originally French.

"There is no such word in French," Hill said, "and if there was it would have to be pronounced 'barbeck.' "

Innumerable readers have written to point out that (1) irregardless is indeed in the dictionary; that (2) alright is also in the dictionary, and (3) that in writing "if there was such a word in French" Hill should have used the subjunctive were , since the condition described is contrary to fact.

Bob Perkins of Long Beach sent a clipping of the column with the word was underlined. "Doesn't this make you sic ?" he punned.

Well, Hill seems to have foundered, which is a blow to his fledgling organization--the Alliance Against Vulgarization of English. It is a good cause, and I hate to see it bullied by my Irregulars.

As several critics pointed out, I was equally to blame with Hill, since I published his criticisms without dissent.

Joseph A. Feehan of Granada Hills wrote: "Chief Justice Rehnquist, Gladwin Hill--and by extension you yourself--are pompous snobs. And you are illogical. And the chief justice is discourteous as well. You processed the word (the word "does not exist" you say)--well, there it is.

"Had the chief justice admonished the fellow that the form of the word in standard English is regardless , he would have been more logical if just as discourteous and snobbish. But to tell the man the word does not exist is asinine. The man said it, ergo it exists, no matter what the Chief Justice's reaction. . . . "

Feehan is saying that any word any of us chooses to use is a word by virtue of that usage. That sounds humongous to me.

The language is constantly enriched by slang and other inventions; but it seems to me that the Supreme Court is one arena in which we ought to hold the line against substandard speech. Grammar and standard diction exist for the sake of clarity, and we need them there, if nowhere else.

On that point John T. Gundlach of Torrance writes: " . . . There would be a crisis (in) the profession of law were non-words allowed to creep in on top of everything which is already there. The second oldest profession cannot afford, for the sake of steady income, to permit its own to debase its only working material. . . . "

But of course Feehan is correct in saying that the word irregardless exists. It is not only in wide use, it is in most good dictionaries, though described as "a substandard or humorous redundancy." Alright is described as "a disputed variant spelling of all right."

As for Hill's use of the indicative was instead of the subjunctive were , he seems to be making an error that AAVE might disapprove. However, I have always thought that making a singular verb plural to indicate a non-existent condition is silly. I see signs that the subjunctive mood is disappearing from our language. If it were left to me, I'd let it go.

To keep the Irregulars employed and fat I don't need Hill's help. I make enough errors on my own. I am not, as I have often said, a grammarian. For anyone who is not a grammarian, writing correct English is like walking a wire. Sooner or later, you fall.

Recently, a number of the Irregulars pounced on me for writing her when I should have written she . It was in a sentence something like "It is her we love." Strictly, her should be she because it is the subjective complement of it , and must be the same case.

However, most contemporary grammarians allow the objective pronoun in this form (as in "It is me"), and Bergen Evans says in "A Dictionary of Contemporary Usage" that standard English requires the subjective form whenever the word is standing in a subject position (as in "She is good"), but "in most other situations, the objective form is preferred."

To find out which way the wind is blowing, I read the classy ads in the New Yorker. For example, a breathless ad for a woman's jewel case ends, "It is her."

And two pages later the same company ends an advertisement for a man's wallet with "It's him."

Irregardless of grammar.

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