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That golden age

School’s about to open, so we can expect to encounter articles telling us that kids today don’t know much and that schools today don’t teach much and that the country is therefore going straight to hell.

This newspaper is going straight to hell, too. Nothing is as good as it was in 1962. Make that 1956. Or 1942. Do I hear 1922?

On examination, that golden age when things were as they were meant to be keeps receding. I was a student in a public school in Eastern Kentucky in the 1950s and 1960s when we were taught, by rote and in no uncertain terms, what was right and what was wrong. We diagrammed sentences. Mrs. Jessie Perkins had us write out and submit each week all 20 spelling words 10 times each. And quizzed us on them.

And yet I can’t say with any authority that most of my classmates turned out to be highly literate, precise or expressive writers.

College students, we’ll hear, have no interest in learning, because they spend all their time getting hammered in beer pong or other drinking games.

And yet I recall that Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall, from 1928, opens with a chapter in which two officials at an Oxford college are aware that the students are out of an evening of amusement as they listen to “the sound of the English country families baying for broken glass.”

Somewhere or another we’re also likely to hear complaints about the way the English language is degenerating shamefully. These complaints come from the kind of person David Foster Wallace describes in “Authority and American Usage” (an Atlantic Monthly article reprinted in Consider the Lobster) as the “usage-authority, a figure who pretty much instantiates snobbishness and bow-tied anality.” *

And yet I see all kinds of lively inventiveness reflected in place like Grant Barrett’s Double-Tongued Dictionary Web site. Or I go into the back files of newspapers from those golden years and find just as much cant, cliche and slovenly usage as turns up today.

It wasn’t all that better then, whenever then was, and holding up today to scorn by comparison with an imagined past distorts perceptions about the present — which is probably bad enough without that.

* Could we all just lay off the bow tie, already?

Posted by John McIntyre at 6:01 PM | | Comments (2)


I've always seen the "good ol' days" thought as a lamentation that change is going on without visible reason for that change being better (whatever that loaded term might mean in context).

Rarely do we weep over the polio vaccine, but we rail against txt msg spk mkng hedwy n2 SAs @ skol.

As a society, we seem to require that you know the rules before you go around breaking them in order for the breaking to have any meaning. Hence the reflection to our youth, when we learned the rules and their importance; we're crying inside because the rules are being changed by those who don't seem to have ever learned them in the first place.

Thanks, John! Here's a typical teh Internets are in ur language, ruining ur grammarz story that I commented on just yesterday.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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