It is the end of the term, so my life consists of tall stacks of student papers, which I must read and evaluate. A number of patterns – or maybe a better term would be grammatical de-patternings – have forced themselves on my attention. There is, for example, the almost invariable “they” employed as the subsequent of a singular subject in a sentence. A half-dozen of these, at least, appear in every four-page theme, even in papers written by English majors. Twenty years ago, in a journal article, I referred to this as gemination – the one and only child miraculously becomes a set of twins. Many among the English professoriate no longer bother to correct this, but I do, insistently. While English is a latitudinous language in terms of its regularity, the logic of its pronominal system is rigorous. Someone is, precisely, one, not two people or more. Ditto anyone, everyone, and no one or none, the last being the contraction of its syntactic precursor in the sentence. In the real world, neither a person nor the man can suddenly become they or them. To write so, however, is surely to think so; and to think so is bad arithmetic even in the first grade. It is perhaps not an unrelated fact that when I give my students the instruction to subtract the number of questions they answered wrongly on the quiz from the total number of questions and to post the result as their score – they reach that result with glacial slowness through grimacing, dull effort.
My wife, too, and a number of others have noticed, as I have, the phrase (reducing it to a formula for the purposes of representation): “X is based off Y” or its even less elegant variant, “X is based off of Y.” This phrase now pops up ubiquitously in student writing. The offense against basic visualization is deeply demoralizing. Strictly speaking, “based off of” is entirely unvisualizable. To what mental notion, then, might it refer? In usage, it appears where a more competent writer than the specimen sophomore- or junior-level writer would write – let us say – “influenced by” or “derived from” or “characteristic of,” although you will rarely or never find those phrases in the run of student writing. Perhaps it echoes the old slogan, “to rip it off,” but I have not heard that in the popular-culture forum since 1980. I put it down tentatively to the success – that is right, the success – of American public education, the actual agenda of which is to produce young people who have no thinking skills whatsoever. Grammar is a set, after all, of basic thinking skills, as in the cases of someone, anyone, everyone, and no one or none, none of which could announce its number more clearly. If anyone had any idea where “based off of” originates, I should be glad to hear from him.
Back to the phenomenon of number. I see sentences like the following one more often than I can count: “A ludicrous majority of people are not as well educated as they should be.” The indefinite article in the singular and the noun in the singular together force the inflection of the verb, which should, as if I needed to stipulate it, also be in the singular. A majority is… whatever it is, even, or rather especially, when it subsumes a plural people later on in the construction. But then college writers barely know what a noun is, let alone a noun-phrase. This error, by the way, does not confine itself to student writing. In the past few days I have noticed it close to a dozen times in articles at The American Thinker, a fairly respectable “conservative” website. This solecism probably results from mere laziness. The verb accords itself to a plural noun (“people”) that, while subsumed grammatically by the main noun of the noun-phrase (“a majority”), nevertheless occurs just prior to the verb, at which point the writer has forgotten about the majority and is only thinking about the people. How progressive!
Every book is now a novel. Aristotle’s Poetics is “an old novel by a Greek guy.” Owen Barfield’s History in English Words, Cleanth Brooks’ Well-Wrought Urn, and René Girard’s I See Satan Fall like Lightning are all novels. Actual novels – and poems and plays – are more often than not “pieces of literature,” an utterance almost unbearably vulgar. The word story seems not to figure in college-student vocabulary at all. Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid, and Beowulf are alike “pieces of literature.” Of course, they are all “based off of” something, in one case an “oral translation.” A possible correlate of the disappearance of the word story is the inability of students to rehearse the events of the story that they have just now read in order as they happen in the story. Likewise students seem unable to discuss items in chronological order, the simplest form of serial discursive order and one that would seem intuitively obvious. They devote, first, a paragraph to Beowulf, second, one to the Aeneid, third, one to Hrolf Kraki’s Saga, and fourth and finally, one to the Odyssey.
Student writers — and the writers behind the Sheldon Cooper character on the TV sitcom The Big Bang Theory — think that the old Saxon phrase willy-nilly means “at random.” In fact, it means “against one’s will.” Thus, “It falls to him, will he or nill he.” Sheldon also believes that moot means “irrelevant” or “already and incontrovertibly settled.” Its actual meaning is, “debatable.” Thus the Constitutional and moral validities of Title IX are, precisely, “moot.” And it ought to be mooted. It turns out that Sheldon and his writers are not nearly as smart as they think they are.
Hillary Clinton, the former First Lady, is not yet the predecessor of Melania Trump. Alas, Hillary is merely a precursor of Melania in that station.
“End of the term”? We are, in any case, knee- deep in the Kali Yuga. And the sergeant says, “Move on!”