Silly Talk

Walter E. Williams

2/6/2008 12:01:00 AM - Walter E. Williams

It's not easy being me. I'm disturbed by statements that many Americans accept or don't question that are ludicrous, if not crazy. The terms "change," "agents of change" and "change agents" are being bandied by presidential hopefuls, their supporters and media commentators. I'd like to ask Americans listening to these people whether they are for or against change. For one to be for or against change, in any generic sense, qualifies as stupid, but maybe public stupidity is the stock and trade of politicians.

Politicians and media people don't have a monopoly on silly talk. How many times have you heard a weatherman say that the sun will try to come out later in the day? Sometimes their prediction turns out to be false and I wonder whether they would explain it by saying the sun didn't try hard enough. But it's not just weathermen who use teleological explanations, ascribing purposeful behavior to inanimate objects. I'm currently listening to CD lectures on particle physics and I'm told that strange quarks want to decay. I'm wondering how the professor knows what a strange quark wants; has he interviewed one?

But it gets worse and sometimes mildly unpleasant. An information operator might tell me that the number I want is 61o-777-8o7o. In the past, I have asked operators whether I'd reach my party by pressing the telephone's "o" key instead of the zero key. Operators have always told me that to reach my party, I'd have to press the zero key, whereupon I'd ask them, why did they say "o"; were they deliberately trying to sabotage my communication efforts? Our brief conversation begins to go politely downhill. Giving them the benefit of the doubt, maybe their source of confusion stems from the fact that the zero key doubles for the operator key.

But there's hope for the future. In my classes, when the opportunity arises, I give my students the definitions for "o" and zero. "O" is a vowel and the 15th letter of the English alphabet. Zero is defined as any number that when added or subtracted from another number does not change the value of that number.

I have other problems. When I attended Stoddart-Fleisher Junior High and Benjamin Franklin High schools, during the '40s and early '50s, teachers insisted on proper grammar, even though these schools were predominantly black and among Philadelphia's lowest ranked in terms of academic reputation.

How many times have you heard a statement such as "Tom and myself were working together"? When one of my students makes such a statement, I ask, "If Tom were not with you, would you say, 'Myself was working alone'?" Words such as "myself" or "himself" are reflexive pronouns. Their proper use requires reference to the subject of the sentence. For example, "Tom injured himself." A reflexive pronoun can also be used intensively for emphasis, "Tom himself was injured." In both cases, himself refers back to Tom, the subject of the sentence.

How about, "He is taller than me." Whenever I hear such error, I visualize Dr. Martin Rosenberg, my high school English teacher, with his hands on his waist, sarcastically asking a student, "Do you mean 'He is taller than me am'?" "Am" is the understood, elliptical, or left out, verb at the end of the sentence. The subject of a verb must be in the nominative case. To be grammatically correct, the sentence should be, "He is taller than I."

I wonder whether it's just me, or is anyone else bothered by silly talk? It might be that I'm getting old and out of touch, or it might be that I'm suffering from having received my education before it became fashionable for white people to like black people and nonsense was unacceptable.