The Blog


12:00 AM, Jul 7, 1997 • By WALTER BERNS
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DURING THE LATTER YEARS of a teaching career extending over more than four decades, I became accustomed to university students who could not spell or punctuate and did not know the rudiments of English grammar and syntax. " Supersede," I would write in the margin of many a term paper (and, before I became tired of doing so, I would add, "Super, from the Latin super, meaning above, and sede, from the Latin sedere, meaning to sit; hence, supersede, literally to sit on top of"), and "This is not a sentence," or " This is a dangling participle," or "The semi-colon belongs after the quotation mark," or "See Fowler's Modern English Usage on that/which." I'd like to think that I did some good, but when I suggested to a graduate student that she purchase -- worse, that she study -- Kate Turabian's Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, she left in a huff and dropped the seminar.

Then, like everyone else who watches televised football games, I also became accustomed to announcers and "commentators" who (when a running back is tackled behind the line of scrimmage or a quarterback throws an interception) utter such barbarisms as "Between you and I he shouda went inside" and "He shouda took the loss." I mostly suffered in silence, but once I wrote what I thought was a friendly letter to an announcer who consistently said "fortuitous" when he meant "fortunate." I got no response.

Nor did I get a response from the Director of Communications, Chevrolet Motor Division, 30007 Van Dyke Avenue, Warren, Michigan 48090, when I wrote to complain of an egregious error of diction in a fourpage ad that appeared in Newsweek (and, I assume, other magazines). On the first page of the ad, surrounded by photographs of smiling children and a dog with a frisbee in its mouth, appeared this text: "It can open a door by itself. Sing two songs at once. Sit up and lay down. Imagine that. A minivan that can do more tricks than your dog." I could imagine it, all right. A couple of years ago, after a huge thunderstorm, I heard a TV interviewer ask a man what he was doing when the tree fell on his house. "Were you just laying on that sofa?" "Actually," the man replied, "I was lying on it." Hallelujah, I said to myself; where there's life, there's hope. In fact, I probably said that aloud.

But now comes the president of the United States, the leader of the free world, the man who is going to take us into the 21st century, the man who, after saying, "Why do we need all this inventory, it's not doing any good just laying out there," went on to say to the country's mayors assembled in San Francisco, "When we've got every classroom and every library and every school in America connected to the Internet, and then when we learn to teach the parents of those children how to access the Internet so they can communicate regardless of their work schedules with their teachers-was my kid in school today -- with the principals-what can I do to help -- when we do that, we are going to revolutionize learning in this country."

Good idea, that; and he can begin the revolution by conjugating the two verbs lay and lie, writing 100 times on the nearest White House blackboard: lay, laid, laid; lie, lay, lain. He especially ought to know the difference between them.

Walter Berns is John M. Olin university professor emeritus at Georgetown University and an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.