A Seminal - albeit brief - Moment for our Language

The bounty of an election year - blah, blah, blah, blah, blah...

I’m a political news junkie. I admit it. I kicked sugar dependency, I can limit myself to four ounces of wine each evening, and I refuse all opiates for the rare pain I might have, but I suck up political news and reporting and “speeching” like nobody I know. I watch it all. (Yes, I’m of that generation that still has a thing in her living room called a television.)

How bad is my affliction? I watched ALL the debates. I listen to any candidate, Republican or Democrat. And then I love to hear what journalists say about those speeches afterward. I just love to read what people write and listen to what they have to say, what analogies they select to explain themselves, what wonderful rhetorical devices they choose…  I’m going to watch as much of each convention as I possibly can. I love it!

I have the highest regard for reasoned public discourse; we used to have that – remember? Now, in lieu of reasoned public discourse, I listen to what’s available. I can’t let it go. So, this morning I listened to Bernie Sanders’ speech endorsing Hillary Clinton. That was a pretty momentous occasion in this long (often embarrassing) election season, right? I was moved to take some notes.

Now, I’m not here to critique the speech of Senator Sanders. I just want to point out a few WORDS he used. But, before I do that, to level the playing field, let me offer one piece of advice to each of the three remaining (until this moment) major presidential candidates. I suspect you’ll all agree with me, concerning their delivery only:

·      Bernie Sanders: Learn to talk without your hands.

·      Donald Trump: Don’t sneer.

·      Hillary Clinton: Stop shouting.

That said, Bernie twice put a smile on my face with his correct choice of words. Then he did the “ay” thing that drives me nuts. I listened to Hillary for a few minutes (I just can’t take the shouting – what are microphones for?), but in her first few lines she did it too: “ay” instead of “a.” @#%$^@#@!!!

Specifically, Senator Sanders, whether you agree with his politics or not, said, “… we need more people with healthcare coverage, not fewer…” Did you catch that? “Not fewer.” He said it right. How many Americans would have said, “We need more people… not less”? Ugh! The word “fewer” has a rightful place in discourse, as does the word “less.” If you can count the items (e.g. people with or without health insurance), it’s FEWER. If you measure the items (e.g. water, gasoline, racism, law and order) it’s LESS. Let me give a few quick examples:

·      Fewer cups of water (count the cups)

·      Less water in the bathtub (measure the quantity)

·      Fewer policemen (count the policemen)

·      Less police protection (measure the effect)

·      Fewer gallons of gas (count the gallons)

·      Less gas in the lawnmower (measure the amount)

·      Fewer people with coverage (count the people)

·      Less health insurance (measure the trend)

Okay, I’ll get off that horse now. But Senator Sanders made another good choice that showed respect for and understanding of our language when he said this: “… every child in this country, regardless of the income level of his or her parents…” His or her! Not “their.” Oh, I know, “their” has now been accepted as correct usage to refer to a singular antecedent; that is, “their” can now be used to take the place of “every child,” which is singular. It has been declared so, since so many people consistently got it wrong. (Yes, yes, I know: English does not have a singular personal possessive pronoun. I know, I know. It’s our language though – it’s the tool we have to communicate with other English speaking people.)

I say it’s a cop-out. “Their” to represent a single entity simply indicates you’re afraid or unwilling to use “his or her.” Well, good old Bernie said it right, and I applaud him. After all, if our language is continually eroded by the laziness or ineptitude of more and more American speakers and writers (many of whom simply aren’t taught in school to write and speak correctly), does that make our language clearer, more specific, more precise, more effective? Or does it make our language sloppy, blurry, imprecise, just good enough to get by?

If you’re still wondering why the senator’s statement about “every child” and “his or her” parents impressed me, let me give you a few examples:

·      Children displayed their artwork. (children as a group)

·      Each child chose his or her favorite. (each child = one child, male or female)

·      Children sometimes suffer because of their parents’ income level. (children as a group)

·      Every child is impacted by his or her parents’ income level. (every child = one child, male or female)

“Each” is singular, even if you’ve collected a whole bunch of individuals. It’s short for “each one,” and you can’t argue that “one” is not singular. Same with “every.” No matter how many individuals in the group, every one of them has his or her opinion.

So, good for Senator Sanders as he endorsed Secretary Clinton! And then he broke my heart by saying that the expanded use of fossil fuel “would be ‘ay’ disaster.” So sad. Secretary Clinton then began her remarks and, within her first few sentences, said, “Senator Sanders and I disagree on ‘ay’ lot of issues… I want to give ‘ay’ special thank-you to…” Between the ceaseless mispronunciation of our language’s only one-letter word and the shouting into a perfectly good microphone, I’d had enough. I turned it off. Sigh.