Growing up in the home of an English professor was actually not quite as tedious as it sounds. There were always a lot of books around, word puns and obscure literary zingers filled the air, and watching the local evening news was always a nice adventure.
“Did he just say ‘We might could use some rain’?” My dad would ask, looking as though someone had just blasted an air horn at him at close range.
Other bonuses included cherry-scented pipe smoke coming from my dad’s study, the use of “forsooth” in all seriousness when I asked if I could borrow the car when I turned 15, and crusty old collectors’ editions of Alice in Wonderland and Oscar Wilde’s Collected Letters sitting casually on the back of the toilet.
My dad was certainly playful with the English language. More than once, I heard him gravely asking our dog a question in Middle English and demanding an answer. He’d march through the house reciting “Jabberwocky” for no apparent reason. And when I graduated from college in 1982, he gave me a card that asked, “How many letters are in the alphabet?” I opened it up and read, “Only 24. E.T. Phoned Home!!” He laughed his ass off over that one for a few days.
But my dad was not just your run-of-the-mill English 101 Catcher in the Rye keyhole form essay tweed jacket dry sarcasm bad hairdo Gallo wine kind of English professor. He specialized in Victorian literature, and with that specialization came a heightened, nay painful, sensitivity toward mangled language. This isn’t to say that Victorian authors didn’t get down with their bad selves, but they did tend to be, shall we say, a tad pompous and huffily accurate with language. In turn, my dad was given to, at regular intervals, correcting grammatical errors in our household.
It was not uncommon for me to be entirely out of earshot of my dad, all the way down the hall in my brother’s room quietly discussing some bland detail of my angsty pre-teen life when my father would bellow: “Brenda and I can’t decide on which flavor lip gloss to wear! Brenda can’t decide, and I can’t decide. Not ‘me can’t decide.’ Brenda and I!!”
There would, of course, be major eye rolling and sighing and the standard, “Jeez! Okay! Brenda and I. Good grief.” response, and my brother and I would give each other the “whatever” look decades before “whatever” existed. At dinner that night, I would intentionally toss out a, “I did good on a pop quiz today!” just to see my dad’s haggard expression.
Nonetheless, the Bossy Correct English seed was planted in me. By junior high, I disapprovingly observed wrong verb tenses and misplaced commas in notes sent to me by my best friend. In high school, another tragic nerd and I actually went to the principal to let him know that quotation marks really should not be used for emphasis after we noted the school sign out front read, Cardinals vs. Spartanburg “Tonight!” (There’s a real possibility that one of us may have mentioned that, had the quote marks been warranted, the exclamation point should have been placed outside the quote marks. However, we may have been thrown out of his office before this occurred.)
By college, things had really gotten out of hand. Two other English majors and I (ack!) made regular visits to a rather rundown corner grocery store to see how many wacky misspellings we could find on the handmade signs. We did this for entertainment. In the produce section, there were “fresh collars” and “canterloops” and “Swiss chord.” Once, in the infant care section, there was a huge sign announcing Baby Dippers “only” $1.99!! Yes, while other University of South Carolina students (Go Cocks!!) were out drinking their weight in beer, we were apoplectic with laughter in grocery store aisles on a Friday evening.
This is an illness that has, to some extent, followed me into adulthood. However, my pomposity was tamped down considerably when I started writing fulltime and experienced “helpful feedback” from copy editors. Returned manuscripts looked like someone had died on my computer screen. Red everywhere. Much to my shock and dismay, my grammar, punctuation, and syntax did not reign supreme. Not even close.
Still, I try to maintain some level of self-importance and jackassity by publicly correcting people on the internet every now and again. Not long ago, I noticed that one of my imaginary internet running friends had used the word “cloths” when he meant to say “clothes.” He’s a smart guy and an excellent writer, so I let it slide. Yesterday, I put on my running cloths and… “Running cloths.” What an amusing little typo! But when it happened again, I felt a slight pressure behind my eyes. By the third or fourth time, I imagined an inflatable kickball in my head. Every misspelling of clothes increased the pressure until, by the 7th or 8th instance, I was compelled to scurry online and bark, Clothes!! Not Cloths! For the love of God! CLOTHES!!
I sound like a lot of fun, don’t I?
Anyway, all this rambling comes down to a final grammatical horror story. For several years now, I have painfully endured the rampant misuse of ” have ran” when people mean to say ” have run.” And by “people,” I mean runners. How is this even possible? I mean, don’t we all obsessively read about how many marathons Joe Blow has run? Don’t we all know that what’s-his-face would have run Chicago if God hadn’t told him not to?
I’ll tell you how it’s possible: it’s become so commonplace that it’s accepted. Oversaturation. Everybody’s doing it!
And by “everybody,” I mean “me.”
I must shamefully reveal that only yesterday, in a moderately important email to a moderately puffy important person, I mentioned that “I have ran for 33 years.” It wasn’t until after I had fired it off that I noticed my error. Oh the horror. The abject humiliation. The ultimate payback for years of ridiculing quote marks, pronoun choices, and baby dippers.
In conclusion, I’m not perfect.
Still, I appreciate beyond words the love of words my father instilled in me, even if it came with an annoying helping of Grammar Superiority Complex.
So, wherever you are, Dad, Happy Father’s Day.
You done good.