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Suffering the Slings and Arrows of Pluperfection

July 10, 1994|JIM SOLLISCH | Jim Sollisch is a writer in Cleveland

As a writer and former college English instructor, I am often asked to settle heated disputes, to provide a clarifying and measured opinion, to be a voice of reason in the passionate debate of issues that divide us. Just the other day, I was asked to decide a matter of life and death.

"Does the term brain dead require a hyphen?" a troubled colleague inquired.

My response to these kinds of perplexing questions is almost stock now. "Ah, good question," I say, to show I don't think the inquirer a dull-witted numskull for not knowing such grammar rules. Next, I ask for the context. Once established, I press on: Is the term being used as a compound adjective, or is the noun brain being used here as an adjective to modify dead ? If the bandying about of rudimentary grammatical terms such as adjective fails to scare off the seeker of truth, I bring out the heavy artillery. Soon, the seeker is bombarded with objects of prepositions, participial phrases and that most feared author-slayer, pluperfect tense.

While these terms may have little to do with the question, they do conjure up images of curmudgeonly schoolmarms diagraming sentences on blackboards while little boys and girls snigger. Now, one of these same little boys or girls, all grown up, stands before me, wishing they hadn't sniggered so much. And I, the one who eagerly answered Miss Participle's every rhetorical question, who sat sniggerlessly in the front row--now I am Master of the Word, Guardian of Truth and Verity in Things Grammatical, Soldier of Syntax and the Status Quo. But dare I risk disturbing the Ghost of Participle Past by admitting that I don't really care whether brain dead is hyphenated. It could be hyphen-impaired, a-hyphenated or simply un-compounded--as long as I can grasp the meaning, I'm happy.

To communicate or not to communicate, that is the question. Communication is a form of magic. To startle someone without raising your voice. To move people without touching them. To make a cynic laugh without coming out from behind your writing to tell the joke. These are no small miracles. And to pull them off, you use whatever you can get your hands on. Sentence fragments are my personal favorite. A little jolting. Like a ride on a linguistic roller coaster.

While I am admitting my prurient interest in deviant grammatical behavior, let me confess further: I love when rappers turn boring nouns like disrespect into verbs. As in, "You disrespected me."

"Yes," I shout, excited to be witnessing the birth of idiom right over my radio. I also delight in the slang form, as in "You dissed me." Listen to it hissing at you snake-like, hurled through clenched teeth with pure disdain. It's almost onomatopoeia, a word Miss Participle loved to roll around her tongue on lazy summer afternoons.

And I respect writers who shun the awkward but politically correct "his or her" construction to match a singular noun, as in, "Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion." I prefer, at times, the grammatically incorrect but more natural, "Everyone is entitled to their opinion." The truth is, English desperately needs a gender-neutral singular pronoun: a hiser, a he/she , an it --only more human. Until someone invents one, their will do quite nicely.

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