Some of you may remember the mysterious ending of the Jimmy Durante shows when he’d wave and say, “Goodnight Mrs. Calabash wherever you are.” I never did know who she was, but I’m going to tell you who Miss Ellis was and why I’ve chosen that she be remembered today.
Nellie Ellis taught English at PS 217 in Brooklyn, NY. Hers was to ready us for high school. She was a stickler for words–knowing a lot of good ones, spelling them correctly, and more importantly using them correctly. There was a time in New York City education, and I assume elsewhere, that students were taught to diagram sentences. Diagramming sentences could be likened to linguistic surgery. A sentence was put on the board and students had to take it apart word by word, phrase by phrase, running lines through it here and there. When finished with the patient, the surgeon had labeled every part of what lay before him or her. Phrases, clauses, objects, subjects, nouns, pronouns, adjectives, adverbs and so on.
The year I entered Miss Ellis’ class the solons at the New York City Board of Education decided this was old-fashioned. We went to something called usage. Miss Ellis was ready to go to war. In her not very humble opinion, this decision not to teach diagramming could be a harbinger of the end of Western Civilization. Without language, the step up we were from animals would be lost. Her corn-stalk yellow hair went gray with concern. And you know what? To this day, never having been taught to diagram a sentence, I am hard-pressed to pick one apart; object and subjects in long sentences are particular head-scratchers.
It is sixty some years since that pillar of our language’s protection and I crossed paths. Do I raise this salute to her just because? Oh no. I take up her cudgels to battle for our civilization. Miss Ellis kept at the ready a large dictionary. When a person couldn’t think of a word, used it incorrectly, or spelled it wrong that person was given a free pass from their seat to the book. It is not easy looking up a word you don’t know how to spell; eventually, you got the hang of it. Now you don’t even have to leave your seat. Much to her amazement, I would imagine, not only does a telephone fit in your pocket and not have to be attached to a wall, it will provide dictionary services and lord knows what else. (I use a program called Grammarly when I’m writing. It gives me comfort. I feel like Miss Ellis is alive and well in my computer looking squinty-eyed at every word I put before you.) I’m not going to give you a subject/object lesson, but I am now ready to give you the point and some homework.
There are some who are again worrying about the end of Western Civilization. Some are worrying about a short Russian guy with eyes the same color blue as found in a flame and his attempting to hasten Western Civ’s end. Still others, in and out of the above two groups, cringe at the inability of a national leader to master the language he was born speaking. You see, as Miss Ellis would point out, if you don’t express yourself properly people will hear what you say but not understand what you mean. From that bad things can happen.
Much of America is having a hard time with this very nostrum. With the first elections coming up since the tainted ones, we need sentences, phrases, clauses, and words that we can understand. So class comes the homework assignment of which I spoke in the form of a word list being bandied about that we all need to know the meaning of. We may not agree on their usage, but we all need to start together with their comprehension.
- obstruction of justice
- “alternate fact” (let me know if you find that one and where…)
I’m sure you have your own additions and I’m sure you have an I-phone. As important as is voting, is understanding what is being said by the people for whom you’ll be choosing to vote. Keep your phone, or if you like, a new dictionary, handy. If what is being said to you makes no sense, look it up or ask Siri.
Finally, here’s an extra-credit assignment. Read the Constitution of the United States, noting first the year it was published. If you can’t find it on the four original pages of parchment, most modern editions will confront you with a not-so-taxing 17 pages. Next, read a copy of the “Federalist Papers,” even an abridged copy. It has but 85 essays, really less because several cover the same topics. It is what will help you make sense of what the Constitution says and why. It contains the writings and in some cases the arguments between the drafters at the Constitutional Convention. What was in Jefferson’s head when he proposed “A” or “Madison’s” when he rejected it and v.v.? Few times in American history is it more important than now to both understand what you are saying to others and to understand what they are saying to you–at least from my perspective.
With passion and concern about more issues than he can cover, Bill Gralnick takes a stab at one or two every Sunday. Why Sunday? That’s when those who read/follow newspapers are used to reading editorial perspectives. Middle of the road, his column often slips a bit to the left of center but also on occasion to the right of it.
You can catch up on his other thoughts, and his two books, “Mirth, Wind, and Ire” and “More Mirth, Wind, and Ire” on his website: http//:www.atleastfrommyperspective.net.
And as he is wont to say, “Read! It’s good for both of us.”