"Lamenting the Loss of the Queen's English"
After many trips to Washington these past few years, I
had concluded that everyone from Texas pronounces the
N-word "nucular." That is, until I saw First Lady Laura
Bush on television a few weeks ago roasting her husband at
a Washington Press Club dinner, when she indicated that she
could pronounce nuclear correctly. Bravo for Mrs. Bush!
But I am not here to bash Texans. After all, some of
my best friends hail from there. No, this column is about
language. And what triggered my writing it was hearing Bill
Gates on NPR the other day, talking about the need for more
students to study science and engineering — a topic
near and dear to my heart. In the middle of one sentence, I
heard him utter "irregardless." Did he mean "regardless" or
"irrespective"? Wow, I thought, what an argument for more
students to study English rather than engineering or
Of course, since Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard
after his freshman year, perhaps we should hold that
venerable Cambridge institution harmless for failing to
enlighten the world's richest man about the correct usage
of the Queen's English. And how could I point fingers when,
not long after, I had a conversation with my 24-year-old
son, a relatively recent college graduate, who, when asked
what he had done over the weekend, replied, "Me and my
friends went mountain biking." So much for a "small Ivy"
liberal arts education and an investment of well over
$100,000 in tuition, room and board.
I'm not really singling out the Magnificent Eight
academies. Fractured grammar is alive and well among all
American college students these days. One of the Johns
Hopkins deans lamented to me about the poor grammar in an
e-mail received from a student who had just been elected to
Phi Beta Kappa.
After the uproar about the Oakland, Calif., school
system authorizing the teaching of one form of street
language, where is the backlash about another? Have we
totally lost the bounds of linguistic propriety? Right up
there with "nucular" and "irregardless" are other entries
into the fractured grammar dictionary. Mixing up "like"
with "as," "which" vs. "that" — granted, these are a
bit more subtle and less cacophonic to the sensitive ear
than "irregardless." How about "interoperate"? If things
work well together, they can be said to be operable or to
interact, but the concept of inter-operability leaves me
nonplussed (meaning bewildered, not nonchalant as some have
misused the word). Let's see if I can use this new word in
a sentence: "My toaster interoperates well with the
"What we need," said one Johns Hopkins full professor,
"is a list of actionable recommendations." Oh my gawd!
Since when is a faculty member recommending filing
lawsuits? My ears are really hurting now. The word
"actionable" has a specific meaning: providing grounds for
legal suit, as in "slander is an actionable offense." It
does not refer to a list of items for which some follow-up
action will result.
Just as I was prepared to accept that I was just being
an old fuddy-duddy and ought to get on the bandwagon to
learn this new fractured language, my daughter announced
her engagement to a wonderful young man, who happens to be
British. So, in addition to learning a new American
vernacular, I find myself constantly thumbing through an
American to English dictionary to try to understand my
future son-in-law, who was schooled in the other Cambridge
As George Bernard Shaw once said: "England and America
are two countries separated by a common language."
William R. Brody is president
of The Johns Hopkins University.