September 30, 2022

Two (or maybe three) Language Complaints

If we ever establish a language police force in this country, I will be one of the first people to sign up. I am constantly irritated by people who regularly violate longstanding grammatical rules. Admittedly, some English rules are arbitrary—actually, the whole language is arbitrary; the rules were not handed down by God on stone tablets—but many rules exist for clarity or graciousness. People violate grammatical rules out of ignorance, laziness, or sheer perverseness.

What set me off this morning was a piece in The New York Times, “These 12 College Students Don’t Like The System They’re In.” The 12 college students were part of a focus group eliciting opinions on their college experiences. Quotations from the panel members were generally articulate—I suspect that editing was minimal—but, every now and then, a sentence caught my language-policeman attention. For example:

This is specifically about me being a woman of color in school.

A proper sentence would have been

This is specifically about my being a woman of color in school.

The grammatical rule here is that a noun or pronoun before (and serving as the subject of) a gerund should be possessive. A gerund, remember, is a verb form ending in ing that functions as a substantive. This is explained nicely on the TERMIUM Plus Web site of the Canadian government. The site offers this commentary:

In informal writing, there is a trend toward dropping the possessive before a gerund. We often use a simple noun or an object pronoun instead … However, in formal writing, the use of the possessive form before a gerund is still preferred. Also, the possessive form may be important for clarity.

I suspect that those people who fail to use a possessive before a gerund in speech or informal writing do so in formal writing as well because they were never taught (or understood) the rule. I experience this “trend” all the time, and I am mildly upset wherever I encounter it. Is it really so hard to remember to say my rather than me?

TERMIUM Plus helpfully provides an example in which the case before a gerund makes a semantic difference (ignore the Canadian spelling):

Jorge is in favour of the candidate being interviewed Friday.
Jorge is in favour of the candidate’s being interviewed Friday.

Think about that. Careful speakers should ignore the “trend.”

A grammatical lapse that is probably more common involves the speaker (or writer) and someone else. I was always taught that, as a matter of courtesy, one always names the other person first, for example:

Mary and I went to see the new movie.
The announcer called out to Christopher and me.

What we often hear instead is

Me and Mary went to see the new movie.
The announcer called out to me and Christopher.

This me-and-somebody construction is rapidly becoming universal. I hear it all the time from celebrities and presumably well-educated speakers. Although both of the sentences are, by conventional rules, wrong, the first one is doubly so. This is because the pronoun Me is in the wrong case. It is always helpful to drop the conjunction in order to get the case right:

Me went to see the new movie.
The announcer called out to me.

The first sentence should sound wrong to every native speaker. The second sentence, on the other hand, is just fine. Of course, getting pronoun cases wrong can lead to other illiteracies:

Mary and me went to see the new movie
The announcer called out to Christopher and I.

These errors, too, and not uncommon.

Returning to the Times piece, I was struck by the fact that students focused on training for a profession rather than on obtaining a liberal education. As a University of Chicago alumnus whose son graduated from St. John’s College, I find this very worrisome. Here are some quotations from the focus group:

You want to get a good degree. You want to get to a good school. You want to get a good-paying job.

But I feel very behind in school because I didn’t want to take out loans. I did the classes that I could pay for now.

But I feel like college is filled with a lot of extra classes that we don’t need. And it just takes up a lot of time and money when we could just go directly and be focused on what we want to do.

It is difficult to be too hard on these students, however. College has become inordinately expensive, and neither foregoing a degree nor being saddled with crippling debt for the rest of your life is an attractive prospect. Participating in a community of scholars is easily eclipsed by a desire to get out alive.

Clearly, for most students, college is outrageously expensive. Few can earn their way through college, which was once common. It isn’t clear how much colleges themselves can address this problem. Teaching is very labor-intensive, and students and parents have come to expect comfortable living quarters and elaborate sports and recreational facilities. On the other hand, raising tuition to increase a school’s prestige is not unknown. Colleges and universities can always find ways to use the money.

Perhaps some jobs do not really require a college education, and some students will not benefit from one. We should rethink the notion that everyone should go to college.

Many wealthy countries provide free or low-cost higher education. The United States should do so as well.

September 21, 2022

A Fetterman Rally

Pennsylvania lieutenant governor and senatorial candidate John Fetterman was in Indiana, Pennsylvania, for a brief rally yesterday. Fetterman is running against Republican surgeon, snake-oil huckster, and carpetbagger Dr. Mehmet Oz. Electing Fetterman will replace a Republican senator with a Democratic one and, one can hope, contribute to an actual Democratic majority in the Senate.

Indiana County definitely leans Republican, but a good crowd turned out for the event, which was held in the lobby of the Kovalchick Convention and Athletic Center on the Indiana University of Pennsylvania campus. The Indiana Gazette described the crowd as consisting of “more than 500 supporters.” I was hardly in a position to count bodies, but the lobby was certainly packed.

The event began with various local Democratic speakers, after which Gisele Barreto Fetterman, wife of the candidate, was called upon to introduce her husband. Gisele Fetterman has played an especially prominent role in the campaign ever since Fetterman suffered a stroke just before the primary election. I was eager to see for myself if the candidate exhibited visible signs of cognitive impairment.

When the candidate took to the podium, he acted more or less like any other candidate, though he certainly didn’t look like a candidate from Central Casting. Fetterman is big, with a bald head and goatee. He wore a black hoodie with sleeves partially rolled up, exposing tattoos on his right forearm consisting of a series of dates. The dates memorialize violent deaths in Braddock, Pennsylvania, during his time of mayor there. From time to time, the tattoo on his right forearm could be seen. It is “15104,” the Zip Code of Braddock. Fetterman spoke of his stroke but showed no sign of its affecting his performance.

Despite his decided workingman appearance, John Fetterman has earned two graduate degrees, a Master of Business Administration from the University of Connecticut and a Master of Public Administration from Harvard University. He is an AmeriCorps alumnus and was mayor of Braddock before being elected lieutenant governor.

Fetterman’s address excited the crowd, but it contained no surprises. He said he wants to get rid of the filibuster in the Senate, protect reproductive rights, raise the minimum wage, and promote good union jobs. He took a few jabs at opponent Dr. Oz.

After his brief speech, Fetterman shook hands with people in the crowd. His wife did the same and took selfies with people who requested them.

The photos below capture the feel of the event.

Line of people waiting to enter the Kovalchick Center
People arrived early for the event and were allowed in shortly after the
official 5:30 pm start time.

Crowd inside
From my vantage point in front of the stage, this was the view to my right.

Crowd inside
And this was the view to my left.

Gisele Fetterman
Gisele Fetterman introducing her husband

John Fetterman
John Fetterman

John Fetterman
John Fetterman

John Fetterman
John Fetterman

John Fetterman with crowd
Pressing the flesh

A goodbye wave
A final wave to the crowd

September 4, 2022

A New Battery for My Honda CR-V

I remember the days when automobiles were often a bit slow to start, even requiring several tries before getting them going. My 2018 Honda CR-V (and most relatively new cars) start almost instantly when the Start button is pressed.

A few days ago, the car started with perhaps half a second additional delay, and that delay began growing with each trip. When I went to the usual Friday wine tasting at the local liquor store Friday, I worried about my ability to start the car for the return home. In fact, the car started, but the delay had become really worrisome.

At that point, I concluded that I probably needed to replace the car battery, but late on the Friday of a long Labor Day weekend was not an opportune time to be seeking auto service. I did get home, however, and I left the car out of the garage for easy access to the engine compartment.

I had recently received e-mail from AAA promoting their battery service and decided that AAA was my best option to get a new battery—if indeed I needed one—and to assure that I could reliably drive to and from church on Sunday.

The AAA message included a link to a Web page where I could fill in information about my car, since different cars need different batteries. On Saturday morning, I followed this link. Oddly—very oddly indeed—the page would not let me actually enter any information at all! I switched to my phone and encountered the same problem. For plan C, I opened the AAA app on my phone. There was no provision for requesting road service specifically for a battery problem, so I was careful to enter the information I knew would be needed from the defective Web page.

In about an hour, a small AAA van labeled for battery service showed up. I expressed my surprise that a tow truck was not sent. The technician, Michael, explained that his vehicle uses less gas than a tow truck, an important consideration in this time of high gas prices. That made perfect sense, though, ironically, Michael left the van running the entire time he was servicing my car!

Michael made a quick check of the battery with a meter and asked me to try to start the car. It did actually start, but he concluded that the battery indeed needed replacement. He placed some device inside the car—I realized later that this was to power such devices as the radio so as to preserve custom settings—and proceeded to remove the old battery and to swap in the new one. The process was quick, as Michael had specialized tools to make the job easier. 

It was not long before the job was done and I was asked to start the car. It turned over instantly. I was advised to let it run for a few minutes before turning it off. Michael packed up and left, though not before I wrote him a check for the new battery. I had planned to pay by credit card but was told there would be a 4% additional charge for using a credit card. This was the second time in a fortnight that I paid for a repair by check to avoid a surcharge. Have these now become common?

A bit later Saturday morning, I started the car again to make a quick trip to the farmers’ market. Immediately, the instrument panel displayed warning lights I was unused to seeing and showing various messages about car functions that were not working. I experience a moment of panic and regret that I let Michael get away before I had assured myself that that car was fully restored to its normal state.

The infotainment system displayed the Honda logo. This was not normal either, but I remembered how to reboot the system. The reboot seemed to work fine. My discomfort was not relieved, however, when my attempt to recalibrate the tire pressure sensors—they were the subject of one of the warning messages—failed. I decided to just sit and wait for a while. Sure enough, systems slowly began coming online. After a time, everything looked normal, though I did need to change the radio to the NPR station I most frequently listen to. My trip to the farmers’ market and later to the liquor store for another wine tasting seemed completely normal.

This morning (Sunday), I found the driver’s side door unlocked when I went to open it. This was not normal, as the car generally locks itself when I walk away and only unlocks when someone with the proper key fob touches the special spot on the door handle. Although I had earlier checked many settings for the car, usually choosing the defaults, turning on the automatic locking feature was apparently not a default setting. It took me a bit of hunting around to find the screen on which to restore the feature. I finally accomplished the change, and the car now seems to work like it did before the new battery was installed.

If you have a late-model car with lots of fancy features, be warned that replacing your battery may be a more troublesome activity than you might have expected. 

The new battery
The new battery