This spring “My Fair Lady,” the stunning musical play that first opened on Broadway in 1956, is due for yet another revival (there have been many) — at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater in New York.
Based on George Bernard Shaw’s play, “Pygmalion,” which was loosely based on Ovid’s “Metamorphosis,” “My Fair Lady” is the story of how a poor flower girl with a hideous Cockney accent and bad grammar is transformed into an elegant society lady — mainly by changing her speech.
Why does this story resonate? Well, to be sure, even today in our highly technological society, people often are judged on how they speak. Mistakes in grammar and usage and relying on jargon instead of well thought-out language all reflect badly on the speaker and/or writer.
First, there are the obvious grammar mistakes: “The bill was split between John and I,” for example (it should be “John and me”) or “Nancy and me are going shopping” (Nancy and I).
There are three cases of pronouns to know in English grammar: subjective, that is, the actor (I, he, she, we and they); objective, that is, the object of the verb or the preposition (me, him, her, us and them); and possessive, showing ownership or association (mine, his, hers, ours, theirs).
If this still seems complicated, check English grammar rules online or pick up any grammar book, no matter how old. These rules do not change.
Nevertheless, at a recent political rally, one of my favorite candidates used the wrong pronoun case. I, and the two people standing next to me, groaned. And when I hear the pronoun mistake made by someone on the “PBS NewsHour” — never the anchors, fortunately, but a guest — I am sadly amazed.
Another rather common mistake in grammar is saying “I could care less” — meaning you do care to at least some degree, when you really mean you do not care at all. A couple of weeks ago, a gentleman wrote a letter to the editor of this newspaper, praising the Sinclair Broadcasting Group and its many ads. He went on to explain why he didn’t care whether or not a Sinclair merger takes place, but he then wrote “I could care less,” which was not what he really meant.
When people make mistakes in grammar, whether in speaking or in writing, their listeners and readers wonder how smart or how educated they really are. But when people use jargon in speaking or in writing — usually to make themselves sound intelligent or, perhaps, trendy — listeners and readers consider them pompous or foolish and sometimes just plain silly.
Often, with jargon, it is impossible to know what is meant.
Some recent examples: On National Public Radio (NPR) an education consultant, during an interview, spoke about “granularity.” I hadn’t a clue as to what she meant. Nor did I understand Dan Eberhart, a CEO and Republican fundraiser, also interviewed on NPR, when he said President Donald Trump has “policy prescriptions that are a little bit outside the box or outside the bandwidth.”
In one of my alumni magazines, I recently read about a graduate student who said she was “in the process of workshopping her writing.” Workshop is a noun and changing nouns into verbs usually sounds strange. A similar example is “wardrobing.” Yes, one’s clothes are considered one’s wardrobe, but when you get dressed, are you “wardrobing into your wardrobe”? No way.
Every few years a new buzzword seems to pop up in our language. For a while everything was “relevant.” Today that affirmative seems to be “absolutely.” When computers first became popular, people were busy “interfacing” with each other.
Indeed, one could argue that language evolves as society progresses. Since technology began, new words enter our language all the time. But grammar rules, cases such as subjective and objective, for example, do not change. Thus, if you want to be taken seriously, to be respected, even admired, as “My Fair Lady’s” Eliza Doolittle was after she learned to speak “the King’s English,” then speak correctly and precisely.
Lynne Agress, who teaches in the Odyssey Program of Johns Hopkins, is president of BWB-Business Writing At Its Best Inc. and author of "The Feminine Irony" and "Working With Words in Business and Legal Writing." Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.