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Grumpy Grammarian

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Recently Terry Gross of WHYY Philadelphia interviewed an experienced copy editor about his new book. I heard him tell her that all editors have certain things that make their skin crawl, things that are not necessarily wrong but that just bug the individual editor.

For example, the author of Dreyer’s English, “Random House copy chief Benjamin Dreyer, is not a fan of the word ‘very.’

” ‘It’s not a dreadful word,’ he allows, but ‘it’s one of my little pet words to do without if you can possibly do without it.’

” ‘Very’ and its cousins ‘rather’ and ‘really’ are ‘wan intensifiers,’ Dreyer explains. In their place, he advises that writers look for a strong adjective that ‘just sits very nicely by itself’ on the page. For example, ‘very smart’ people can be ‘brilliant’ and ‘very hungry’ people can be ‘ravenous.’ ” (Or caterpillars, I suppose.)

On twitter, freelance editor @morinotsuma mentioned another usage that isn’t wrong but confuses many copy editors, myself included.  “A phrase I always misunderstand,” she says, is “ ‘the date got moved up.’ I always think it should mean that the date was changed to something nearer to the present but really it means it got pushed further into the future.”

Here’s a lost cause of my own: “beg the question.” My writer father’s favorite usage book, known simply as “Fowler,” says the phrase beg the question means asking a question with an embedded assumption like, “When did you stop beating your wife?” It doesn’t mean, “That leads to the question XYZ,” which is how everyone uses it now.

And how about “too big to fail”? In my view, that should be should be “too big to be allowed to fail.” I know my wording is clunkier, but nothing is too big to fail, you know, not even the dinosaurs.

And then, there’s the way “loved ones” is used when someone dies and family members are mourning. The usage feels backward to me. The family of the deceased may indeed be his loved ones, the people he loved, but what we actually mean is “the people who loved him.” If a memorial could say, “Our thoughts are with all who loved him,” my brain would feel less itchy. But since the whole world knows what is meant when someone says, “my prayers are with her loved ones,” I probably should go off into a corner with my itchy brain and just be quiet.

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Photo: The Genesis Center

I’ve been having the best time lately. I’m volunteering in English classes at three refugee agencies, assisting the classroom teachers. The nonprofits are all near one another in Providence.

Dorcas International is an official refugee resettlement agency. It offers a range of services not just for refugees but for other immigrants and for native-born people living in poverty. At Dorcas, I help a teacher work with students who have just arrived in the United States. Most of them know no English at all, and some never went to school in their own countries and are just learning to write.

We have students from Myanmar, the Dominican Republic and Cape Verde, among others, but they are not all refugees. In fact, the majority of families being resettled by the State Department in Providence right now are from Syria and the Congo.

I read in the paper today that 80 percent of the refugees that have entered the United States this year are children, but I work with adults.

The Genesis Center is not a government resettlement agency, but it works with refugees and other immigrants on English and on job skills. It has a great culinary program and places many people in jobs. It also has a day-care center. The students I work with at the Genesis Center are generally a bit farther along in English.

The Refugee Dream Center was more recently established than the other two. It was founded by Omar Bah, a refugee who had been a journalist in Gambia and who had to flee when his articles on human rights garnered him death threats. Bah’s nonprofit is small so far, but its focus on helping people after the four months or so that they receive government assistance is needed. At the Dream Center last week, I worked with a woman newly arrived from Haiti and another from Burundi who has lived in Providence about a decade.

Pretty much all the students act grateful for the help, and it’s a treat to see a face light up when the penny drops. In January, closer to home, I plan to take a training to co-lead small conversation groups.

Did I mention I’m having a lot of fun?

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Though I can’t say I’m crazy about the Philadelphia accent — or, for that matter, the accents of other places I’ve lived, like Boston’s, Minnesota’s, and Rochester’s — I really would hate to see it go.

I do like trying to identify where new acquaintances might be from. And the homogenization of regional accents just seems a loss. Maybe not a loss on the scale of endangered languages, but a part of a regional culture we’re likely to miss once it’s extinct like the heath hen.

This was in the NY Times recently: “The Philadelphia regional accent remains arguably the most distinctive, and least imitable, accent in North America. Let’s not argue about this. Ask anyone to do a Lawn Guyland accent or a charming Southern drawl and that person will approximate it. Same goes for a Texas twang or New Orleans yat, a Valley Girl totally omigod.

“Philly-South Jersey patois is a bit harder: No vowel escapes diphthongery, no hard consonant is safe from a mid-palate dent. Extra syllables pile up so as to avoid inconvenient tongue contact or mouth closure. If you forget to listen closely, the Philadelphia, or Filelfia, accent may sound like mumbled Mandarin without the tonal shifts.

“Some dialects can be transcribed onto the page, but the Philadelphia accent really has to be heard to be believed. And when an accent goes silent, so do its speakers. A recent study out of the University of Pennsylvania reported that, like many regional phenomena, the Philly sound is conforming more and more with the mainstream of Northern accents. And that’s a shame.

“The beauty of the Philly accent, and I should point out it’s mostly to whites that these sweeping statements apply, is its mashing-up of the Northern and Southern. Nowhere but in the Delaware Valley can you hear those rounded vowels — soda is sewda, house is hay-ouse — a clear influence from Baltimore and points south.”

More at the NY Times, here. The article is by Daniel Nester. (Nester? Not related to I.H. Nester, my Philadelphia father-in-law’s long ago employer? Now, that would be a small world.)

By the way, if you are interested in the Penn study, check out the National Public Radio interview: “Students of Penn linguistics professor Bill Labov have been walking around some 89 Philadelphia neighborhoods for four decades. At the school’s linguistics lab, they have shelves and shelves of recorded conversations from Philadelphians born in 1888 all the way to 1992.” More here.

Graphic: Jennifer Daniel
Can you identify the sawf pressel, the wooder, torsts (as in ” ‘Lannic city is too torsty ennymore”), a samalem, arnj juyce, a sennid cannle, a miskeeda, and the tayyin rowll (Italian roll)?

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