By Patricia Chadwick
One day, when I was seven years old and had just learned how to do long subtraction, I took a piece of lined paper and wrote the number 2000 at the top of the page. Beneath it, I wrote the number 1948, put a minus sign to the left of it, a line under it, and did the subtraction. The result was fifty-two. That was how I discovered, to my horror, that I would be fifty-two years old at the beginning of the next century. Fifty-two years old! It seemed incomprehensibly ancient and almost impossible to imagine. At the time, my father was thirty-eight, which seemed seriously old to me. In fact, I told him one day with tears in my eyes that once he became forty, he could “die any day.” Yes, those were my very words. He threw his head back and laughed, which did nothing to ease my anxiety.
In a couple of weeks, I will turn seventy-five, and feeling anything but ancient. Quite to the contrary, I am grateful for three quarters of a century of opportunities and experiences that have resulted in myriad memories, the vast majority of which bring a smile to my face, joy to my heart and stimulation to my brain. That’s not to say that I would willingly relive every event in my life, but I can happily say that the sum total of the mostly good, the occasionally bad, and the even fewer ugly experiences has been blessed and blissful. Each stage of life has seemed a blessing for which to be grateful. Admittedly, now that I am well into my eighth decade, certain creaks and cracks have developed—the odd twinge of arthritis in my neck and my thumbs, the realization that balance is more challenging, and the acceptance that I can no longer throw around a 55-pound bale of hay the way I could in my teenage years. Those realities have forced some changes in habits as well as mindset. Five-mile walks and a daily exercise routine have replaced five-inch stilettos and tennis racquets. I’ve come to relish solitary exercise—it allows for reverie. As to the inconveniences of an aging body, the wise Buddhist maxim works for me: “Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.”
They—whoever “they” are—say that “older” people become set in their ways. By that measure, I must be a teenager—for me there is nothing more enjoyable than a new experience, particularly if it revolves around travel, food, the opera or meeting new people. But…….and now comes the point of this column………there is a matter about which I am inflexible, namely, English grammar as it was drilled into me over several years in primary and middle school. Maybe that’s foolish of me. Language changes. Today we no longer speak the English of Chaucer or Shakespeare. We don’t even speak the English of our Founding Fathers. Sentence structure has become simpler, and that is understandable and, in fact, practical. But sometime over the last thirty or so years, English Grammar, as a subject taught in grammar school and honed during middle school, seemed to have disappeared from the American school curriculum.
Does grammar matter? The obvious answer is “Yes.” Grammar plays a critical role in communication, be it spoken or written. On the other hand, is communication harmed by using the pronoun “I” instead of “me” after a preposition? Most Americans (and many other English-speaking people) will agree that no harm at all is done, and they are right. So am I an old fuddy-duddy for cringing when my adult, educated friend says, “Thank you for the wonderful book you gave my daughter and I.” A pang grips my stomach and I say to myself— “my daughter and me, not my daughter and I”—but I bite my tongue and say nothing allowed.
My obsession with English grammar and my desire to hear it spoken flawlessly harkens back to my childhood and Sister Ann Mary, the teacher who most magnificently molded me during the twelve years she was the principal of my school. The daughter of a high school principal, and herself a graduate of Radcliffe, she was born a pedagogue who made learning a joy. Under her tutelage, not only did I learn to parse sentences, but I also came to enjoy it. Long after graduating from high school, on one of my annual visits to Sister Ann Mary, the two of us were sharing a picnic lunch and I said, “It’s wonderful to have such healthy food.” I knew in an instant that I had misspoken, but she was already on the gentle offensive. Turning to me with her lovely blue eyes wide open she said, “My dear, the food is healthful, which contributes to our being healthy.” She never ceased being a loving teacher.
My annoyance at what feels like the destruction of English grammar, as I learned it, is ingrained. Some might argue that what I find tragic is simply the evidence that English is a living language. Entering the next decade of my life, I will do my best to accept the reality that I cannot reverse the current trend. However, this much I can and will do, namely, honor Sister Ann Mary by making sure that my own engagement with the English language will continue to make her proud from wherever she is in heaven.