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Essay

Farewell, Well. Ya Done Good.

March 02, 2003|Garrison Walters | Garrison Walters is the author of "The Essential Guide to Computing" (Prentice Hall, 2001).

Standing in line at Starbucks. 7:00--that's a.m. Not alert. Minimally functioning brain wonders why we use this inefficient way of waking up. Wouldn't it be better to ask a nurse to start a caffeine IV? Faster, surely. If Starbucks is the competition, probably cheaper too.

Woman in front talking to a friend behind me as clerk slowly prepares latte. Latte at 7? Don't want to think about it. Women are talking about kids. Lady in front is gushing. "Dustin's fourth-grade teacher says he's doing good in school!"

Recovering brain is pleased at this news. Fourth grade and already doing good! Wonderful. Too young for philanthropy, perhaps helping kids in lower grades with their reading and math? In any case, really encouraging. A nice start to the day.

Take first sips of coffee. Somewhere in stomach, feisty molecules of caffeine punch their way into bloodstream and head for brain. On arrival in cranium, start to blow tiny whistles and scream at brain cells. Waking up starts.

Personal alertness meter slowly pushes pass "sentient," on its way to "somewhat aware." I suddenly realize the lady didn't mean that her son was doing "good" in school. She meant that he was doing "well." Look around for cop. See one. Yell. "Officer! Over there! Lady in the beige jumper! Felony misuse of a part of speech!"

Swarm of cops rushes in and grabs her. She's whisked away in paddy wagon. At the precinct house they'll put her directly in the slammer.

At arraignment tomorrow, we'll have a perp walk. As miscreant gets out of the car, shackled, jumper dreadfully wrinkled, dozens of English teachers will hurl stinging polysyllabic epithets, many with arcane literary references. Later, the attorney general, in on the red-eye from D.C., will hold a press conference.

Caffeine molecules now in charge. Brain cells begin to do calisthenics. Realize it's all a dream. Darn.

Sadly, the grammar police don't exist. It's not that I haven't tried to do my part. Wrote letters, op-eds. Even went to meetings of political parties. No one seems to care. Democrats and Republicans just want campaign contributions. Tried to get the Revs. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson interested. If our grammar isn't a traditional value, I don't know what is. Just got form letters back. Had to take out blue pencil.

Our language is doomed. It's not only that oddity "well" that is on the way out. Adverbs as a whole seem to be losing favor. People can't be bothered--they have to do things "real quick."

My view is that language had to develop through "deliberate design." I can picture how the adverb was born. A couple of millenniums ago, give or take a few centuries, some of our Anglo-Saxon ancestors were sitting inside a smoky cave. The elders couldn't decide. Should the adverb end in "lee" or "lyth?" After painful debate (swords and alcohol were involved), "lee" won and as a compromise they spelled it "ly."

The alternative view is the "sexual selection" theory of language development. According to the scientists who study language--and who go by the peculiar title of "linguist"--adding "ly" to words happened because those who spoke this way had sex more often than those who didn't. They argue that our current penchant to eschew the adverb is just part of a natural process of linguistic evolution. According to linguists, language is continually getting simpler as people jettison awkward, useless rules in order to have more time for sex.

I don't buy this theory. If it were true (note clever use of subjunctive), how would you explain another popular trend, exemplified in this phrase, "Where's the car at?" It seems to me that "where's the car?" conveys the identical thought with the economy of two fewer letters. According to my calculations, if 250 million adult Americans use the redundant "at" 20 times a day, the extra greenhouse gases they produce will add a degree a year to global warming, raise the oceans by at least a foot within five years and flood Boston, New York, Miami, New Orleans and Los Angeles.

And speaking of California, when the waves start breaking over Sepulveda Boulevard, part of the blame will go to our curious habit of adding "The" before the names of freeways, as in "I took The 405 to The 5, where I sat in The Gridlock at The El Toro Y." Since statistics show that Californians speak of their freeways more often than their spouses or children, we can assume that heat from the redundant "thes" will add an extra few inches a year to the ocean by 2005. The surfing in Whittier should be, like, great.

When I called about this new problem, someone claiming to represent Falwell warned darkly that it had all been prophesied. He didn't appear to be the least bit alarmed. But maybe that's because Falwell's headquarters are in Virginia's Piedmont. I suspect Robertson, who lives in Virginia Beach, will be more concerned.

So I'm going to found a new group, the "Defenders of the Adverb." We'll get together once a month for sentence parsing parties. We'll launch petition drives to protect endangered grammar. It'll be great fun. But we won't be taking any chances. At the end of each gathering, we'll distribute free samples of Viagra.

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