When I was in school, many of my teachers were from North Carolina, one of them Miss M., a large and rather loud woman with steel-grey hair. We liked her much better than her predecessor, the Chicagoan with the prominent nose who mocked our country speech. We also liked our North Carolinian physical education teacher, a right pleasant person. And those of us planning to go on to college were fortunate to have been the students of the wonderfully eccentric Mr. T. A thin and nervous individual, Mr. T. taught us Algebra, Geometry, Trigonometry and Elementary Math Analysis, all of which I managed despite the fact that I have no particular talent for these subjects. A respectable GPA my only claim to fame in those years, I took my studies seriously. Mr. T., at first glance, seemed humorless, but sometimes, when something struck him funny, his face would redden, and he would break out in an embarrassed grin from ear to ear. While Mr. T and the other Tar Heels were memorable, they didn’t hold a candle to Mr. H., also from their state.
The soul of refinement, Mr. H. spoke and dressed elegantly. And because we were Up South folk, we could hear his agreeable NC accent. Considered by everyone to be good-looking, Mr. H., according to one of the old ladies in the county, was, in our local vernacular, “a pretty man, ‘deed he [was], a pretty man.”
Regarding his approach to teaching grammar and composition, Mr. H. was fanatical, or so we thought at the time, about the proper conjugation of verbs. And he insisted that we diagram sentences until we couldn’t stand diagramming sentences another minute. But because of his strictness, his decorous exactitude, we learned to express complete and coherent thoughts. We knew—or most of us knew, anyway—that the object of a preposition could not be the subject of the sentence, could not be that which controlled the number or person of the verb.
Were he still with us today, Mr. H. would be shocked to hear what passes for English now: the habitual dropping of four-letter expletives; the voguish misuse of the word “concerning” as an adjective[i] and the even more annoying misuse of the term “begging the question” to introduce a query. He would be no less offended by the widespread preference for “there is” when “there are” would be in order.
There is great import in the most rudimentary rules of grammar, and there are great dangers in a debased tongue—a facility for English is essential in order to recognize the syntactical trickery of today’s propagandists, who, though they are not erudite, are very sly. With ease they wield deceitful language as a weapon to mislead, manipulate and dumb down; to convince the unschooled and credulous—and increasingly unhinged —that the most qualified person to pilot a passenger jet is one who satisfies DEI requirements, that “gender[ii]” is “fluid,” that the term “woman” defies definition, that the invasion forces marching across the Southern Border are merely “irregular” not illegal immigrants. Lacking all subtlety, inarticulate and unthinking, too many people believe the parody that is agitprop today. C. S. Lewis once complained that “[t]he trouble about writing satire is that the real world always anticipates you, and what were meant for exaggerations turn out to be nothing of the sort.”[iii]
The participle-challenged dissemblers of the present age, especially White House press secretaries and TV news commentators, would have benefited from a strict country school teacher such as Mr. H. because they so often embarrass themselves when they say, for example, “have went” instead of “have gone” or “had saw” rather than “had seen.” Such grammatical lapses on the part of those who are supposed to be educated, not to mention the very sound of the guttural and geographically indistinct jawing of most Americans today, would leave Mr. H. speechless.
Sadly, a few years after I graduated, I learned that, one afternoon, Mr. H., in an inebriated state, had been escorted by the principal out the door of the school and to his car. I should not have been surprised when I heard this because I had known that he and Miss M. were nightly patrons of a local tavern owned by some of my shirttail kin. It was a hole in the wall, a backroom behind a country grocery store. There was a remarkable, and yet, for those familiar with rural Southern life back then, not so remarkable juxtaposition of disparate elements in the cultured Mr. H.’s hanging out at such a place in the company of the stout and mannish Miss M. In spite of his problem with imbibing, Mr. H. was a singular gentleman and a rare educator who was admired by his students including a plain teenage girl who lived on a tobacco farm not too far from Sandy Bottom.
[i] I realize that there is disagreement regarding the propriety of using the present participle of concern as an adjective.
[ii] A word they can’t even define.
[iii] C. S. Lewis to I. O. Evans, 26 September 1945.