I had a feeling in March of 2019 that one column might not cover everything I don’t understand. It’s looking now as if two columns won’t be enough. I’ve been making notes and the list is steadily growing. I used to think that kind of list would get shorter as I matured, but it hasn’t worked that way. Age has unexpectedly brought an increased awareness of how little I know.
Defining what we know can be a nebulous thing. My father told me a story about a man who drove to an unfamiliar town to attend a meeting. As he neared downtown, he pulled his car over and asked a young boy on the sidewalk if he could tell him how to get to the courthouse. The little fellow shook his head and said, “No sir. I don’t know where it is.”
The man had been given directions that referenced a couple of landmarks. He asked the youngster if he knew how to get to the Baptist church or the local drugstore. Each time the boy said, “No sir. I don’t know.” The man was befuddled at such a lack of knowledge and asked, “Son, is there anything that you do know?” The little boy didn’t hesitate. “Yes sir!” he said. “I know I ain’t lost.”
There’s a lot about grammar and language that makes me feel lost. I get confused on who and whom. A good example is on page 42 of my Third Edition (1971 Copyright) Practical English Handbook purchased from Valdosta State College. It notes that for speech it’s proper to say, “Who were you talking to over there?” But for writing it should be, “Whom were you talking to over there?”
What if you write out your speech? Do you write whom on your paper but then try to remember when standing at the podium to say who? When Ernest Hemingway wrote “For Whom The Bell Tolls,” there’s no doubt he used the right word. But most of the time who sounds better than whom and seems less pretentious to me. It’s generally desirable to be named in a “Who’s Who” publication, but it would be embarrassing to be named in “Whom’s Whom.” It’s just not right.
There has probably been an update to that Practical English Handbook, but according to the sticker I paid $4.45 so I plan to keep using it. The bookstore won’t give me a refund without a receipt.
Commas have always confused me, but there was a time long ago in a faraway land when I thought I almost knew what I was doing. I’ve looked online at several sources and finally found one whose guidance I heartily embrace. It gave concise rules for appropriate comma usage, then summarized by saying if you feel like you need a comma just put one there. So, if you notice some extra commas or you think a comma is missing you may be correct. Try reading the passage aloud. If not completely satisfied, please feel free to insert or delete commas to suit your preference.
Homonyms and all their relatives should be prohibited by law. There’s a feature on my word processor called “Read Aloud” where a fellow with a very pleasant voice will recite exactly what I’ve typed. I call him Ragman, for Read Aloud Guy. He does a great job and apparently doesn’t require much sleep. I’ve clicked on his icon at all hours and he responds immediately without complaint.
One thing Ragman has trouble with though are words like “read.” He sometimes gets the pronunciation of the future tense and the past tense mixed up. I believe we need a distinctive spelling for every word, such as, “I have rhed the book.” We have enough letters and potential combinations to resolve this troubling issue.
The Society of American Phonetic Spellers, SOAPS, has identified homonym issues as the focus of their 2020 legislative agenda. It’s an election year, so I have no doubt plenty of candidates will pledge their support. My unbridled optimism for political solutions is tempered only by reality.
There’s a lot more about grammar and language that I don’t understand. I’m just thankful to be like that little boy who knew he wasn’t lost. But if I were lost, to who or whom would I go for directions? I think it depends on whether I ask orally or in writing. It’s probably easier to just circle the block and pray like I’ve always done.
I usually manage to find where I want to go, and I try not to lose sight of the road that will take me back home. At times I may be a little confused, but like that young lad, “I know I ain’t lost.”