Rushville Republican

Columns

October 3, 2012

It's just before the at

RUSHVILLE — By no stretch of the imagination have I ever considered myself a grammarian who knows even a fraction of the rules English teachers follow so thoroughly. As a matter of fact, I hated diagramming sentences in English class, and I have no recollection of a dangling participle or split infinitives. But I do remember a few of the rules of grammar that get broken more often than they are observed. For instance, there is nothing more annoying to me than to hear someone say, “Where’s it at?” For one thing, the rules of grammar state that a sentence should never end in a preposition. For another, adding the word “at” to the sentence, “Where is it,” is redundant – the “at,” in other words, isn’t needed and it’s also a preposition. Remarking on the incorrectness of ending a sentence with a preposition, none other than Sir Winston Churchill once said that ending a sentence with a preposition was something up with which he would not put – rather than saying it was something he wouldn’t put up with! There’s no question about how difficult it is to follow all the rules of grammar. Ending a sentence with an “at” is just a pet peeve of mine.

My natural inclination, which I sometimes struggle to resist when someone says, “Where’s it at?” is to answer with the cliché, “Right before the ‘at.’” Sentences do not end with the word “at.” Doing so falls into the odious category of substandard English.

I’m reminded of a story told by the late Jeff Hufford. He once had a student in a speech class who kept making verb tense errors in his speeches. Jeff consistently called him on each mistake and explained why using the proper verb tense was important. The student took the lessons to heart, so much so that he began correcting his father when he heard him using the wrong verb tense, which made his father so angry that he went to see Jeff about it. “I don’t like my kid telling me how to speak!” he said to Jeff. Without missing a beat Jeff said, “Would you rather I taught him substandard English?” To which the man replied that he “reckoned not.” Jeff added that the man should be proud of his son for having learned to use correct grammar and for wanting to help his dad speak correctly. The man thought for a second and conceded that learning to speak Standard English wasn’t all that bad an idea after all.

The counter-argument that people put forward to justify using substandard English is that, as with the previous example, the listener gets the intended message, even if the wrong verb tense is used. While that may be true, it’s still improper grammar and certainly doesn’t reflect well on the speaker. The truth of the matter is we tend to speak the type of English we’ve heard spoken by others when we were growing up. If all a child hears is, “Where’s it at?” as an adult the redundancy of that sentence will sound perfectly natural to him. Just like the sentence, “He done a good job.” The child, who grew up not hearing it said correctly, won’t even “hear” the mistake when he becomes an adult. “He done a good job” will sound perfectly natural to him. I have lost track of how many times I’ve heard people say things like, “He done a good job” as opposed to “He did a good job.” It’s simply a verb tense problem, but it’s still substandard English.

There is a larger problem with the rampant use of substandard English, and that’s how if reflects not just on the person using it, but on the community as a whole. Over the last few weeks, I’ve written about what is needed to help this community grow. I have identified three factors so far: (1) an attractive community, (2) an outstanding school system and, (3) the quality of local healthcare. How we speak is a fourth element in the total package of qualities that will help bring new families back to Rush County. It’s not just how the community looks that matters, or the reputation of our school system, or the quality of healthcare services, it’s also the image we project.

Ending sentences with the word “at” may be nothing more than a Hoosier-ism, or it may be common usage among Midwesterners. It’s certainly not just the local folks who use the word improperly, but regardless of how widely “at” is used to end a sentence, it’s still substandard English. And it may also be just a habit to which we’ve simply become accustomed through common usage. Very much like the way the word “Washington” is pronounced. Listen the next time you hear someone pronounce it.  A fair share of the time the word is pronounced as though it were spelled “Worshington.” Mispronunciation is another habit that gives Midwesterners a bad name.

But if I would choose to eradicate one misplaced preposition from common conversation, it would be the “at” to the end of too many sentences. Next time you hear someone say, for instance, “Where’s it at?” stand up straight and tall and say, “Just before the ‘at’!”

That’s -30- for this week.

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