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What's Good Grammar to a Pup, Anyway?

August 07, 1995|Jack Smith

Our new dog, Lili, the Doberman pup, is incorrigible. She scoops up socks, shoes, panties and anything else loose and dashes through the house with them, defying my wife and me to grab them out of her maw.

"Snatch it out of her mouth and hit her with it!" I keep shouting at my wife, who is madly but unsuccessfully chasing the dog about. "I can't catch her!" she screams in frustration. I am even more frustrated than she, being unable to jump up and run after the dog.

Having had several dogs as a boy, I know something about how to train them, but I haven't made an inch of progress with Lili. It is obvious she is only playing. And she loves to win. My wife unfortunately bought her a rubber toy with a ring at one end and a long hook at the other. Lili grabs it and taunts my wife with it, coming almost within her reach, then dancing away when she reaches for the toy and streaking about the house in joy. Sometimes Lili lets my wife grab hold of one end, but invariably wins the resulting tug of war. She repeats this game over and over until my wife is reduced to using words that no decent dog should hear.

Lili also torments Susie, the German shepherd we took in about 10 years ago. Much larger than Lili, Susie is no match for her speed. Lili snaps at her ears then dashes away, again and again, taunting her. Susie now and then utters a pitiful wail and snaps at her tormentor, but to no avail. She has no more chance of catching Lili than my wife has.

Lili will chew anything she finds, including shoes and books. The other day she got hold of my copy of "Miss Thistlebottom's Hobgoblins," by Theodore M. Bernstein, tearing the jacket and chewing the insides as if it were a steak.

That made me angry. I was very fond of that book. It debunked many out-of-date or pretentious rules of grammar that would-be purists often cherish. Bernstein demolishes the widely held notion that it is not good English to end a sentence with a preposition, an idea with which I happen to agree, or, an idea I happen to agree with.

"In English," Bernstein says, "prepositions have been used as terminal words in a sentence since the days of Chaucer, and in that position they are completely idiomatic."

I have often used Bernstein's common sense to counter some complaint about my own grammar. Bernstein, of course, does not clarify every grammatical question. I find no answer in his book for an alleged blunder of mine in a recent column.

"As one who has appreciated your steadfast efforts to be precise in your use of language," writes Robert A. Bjork, a professor of psychology at UCLA, "I was a bit surprised by a sentence in today's column."

The objectionable sentence was a reference to Ellie Gabourel, my keeper-chauffeur- companion. Speaking of Ms. Gabourel's driving skill, I said, "She does not have a heavy foot, like my wife."

Bjork writes: "You might mean that, like your wife, Ms. Gabourel does not have a heavy foot. But I suspect you mean 'unlike my wife.' I suspect that, in part, owing to impressions I have gained from your earlier articles on your wife's car and her driving habits.

"You would not, of course, be the first person to lose track of an earlier 'not' in a sentence, but given your self-imposed ration of errors, I thought you might want to be alerted to this possible slip-up on your part."

Unfortunately, if Bernstein treats of this question, the section has been torn up by the dog. Perhaps I can work my way out of it by explaining what I meant.

First, my wife has a heavy foot. That means that when she drives, she tends to allow her right foot to depress the accelerator, thus causing the car to go faster. This worries me, but I usually keep silent.

Recently, as I have already reported, my wife got into the 80s on the way to Bakersfield and was stopped by a Highway Patrol officer who gave her a ticket. I did not say anything at the time, in keeping with my new resolve not to criticize her.

Perhaps it was misleading to say "Gabourel does not have a heavy foot, like my wife," and it might have been correct to say "unlike my wife, she does not have a heavy foot."

The fact is, my wife has a heavy foot, and Gabourel does not, but, as I say, I can't find any reference to this point in Bernstein's book.

Darn that dog, anyway.

* Jack Smith's column is published Mondays.

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