Language Lover’s Lament Revisited

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by Clover Carroll

As I began reading Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese in anticipation of the Sept. 9 meeting of the Crozet Library Book Club, I was dismayed to encounter the following description on p. 63: “This knock-kneed fellow, five, maybe six years old in oversize shorts, had clutched a wooden plane in his hand from the moment he came on board.” Set in Ethiopia, this beautifully written “epic medical romance”—which spent two years on the New York Times bestseller list and won the 2010 Indie award for best adult fiction book”—was written by a professor at the Stanford School of Medicine who graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He, and his editor at Random House, should have known better than to omit the ending –d from an adjective derived from a verb. The boy’s shorts were in fact oversized, because they had been sized bigger than normal when they were made in the past. I was quite disappointed that this supposed literary novel should contain one of my frequent grammar gripes, one that I seem to observe more and more often these days.

The most common form of this error is to write “use to” when the writer means “used to,” referring to a habitual activity practiced in the past. For example, I used to have a memory, but now I live in the present because that’s all I can remember! Similarly, I used to wear a size 12, but now I don’t want to talk about it.

In these cases, since the behavior occurred in the past, the correct usage is fairly easy to remember; but choosing the correct “supposed to” over the less literate “suppose to” can be more confusing, as in “she is supposed to arrive at 8:00, but she may be late.” This passive voice construction implies a person or group who is doing the supposing; we all suppose she will arrive at 8:00 (active voice), so that she is supposed (by us) to arrive then (passive voice, so-called because the doer of the action remains unidentified).

In a more typical example of this idiom used in association with duty”—“I am supposed to weed my garden this afternoon, but fortunately it’s raining””—the entity doing the supposing is my conscience! People who make these two mistakes tend to have heard the phrases in conversation more often than they have read them in print. The d and the t tend to blend together when spoken, so it may sound as if the d has been dropped. But it hasn’t! I used to be an English teacher (in case you couldn’t tell) and so I am supposed to uphold certain standards of English usage in my speech and writing!

The addition of the -d is necessary because the words in question are verbs that have become adjectives by assuming a past action. Barbed wire, for example, is assumed to have been created by placing barbs into straight wire. Since this action occurred in the past, the past participle must be used to describe it. Unfortunately, this dropping of the -d is becoming increasingly commonplace beyond just the cases of “used to” and “supposed to,” and I wince each time I encounter it. Trucks roll merrily along labeled Oversize Load, or advertising Mrs. So-and-So’s Old Fashion Cookies”—unaware of the fact that before the cookies could be sold, some inspired cook fashioned those cookies in the old style.

The other day on Facebook, I gasped when a supposedly educated young woman confessed her guilt at putting whip cream on her sundae, forgetting that someone had whipped that cream for her express pleasure. Menus increasingly offer ice tea, ignoring the fact that the act of pouring the tea over ice is what gives iced tea its special cold deliciousness.

While travelling this summer, I shuddered when I saw a sign for Handicap Parking. This is the worst example I’ve seen yet. The correct term for disabled individuals is handicapped (implying an outside force that has curtailed their abilities), and these parking spaces are reserved for them. The erroneous form sounds as if you might receive a handicap if you park there! By the same token, if a reformed gambler is a change man, he’s simply performing a different role in the casino! And smoke ham might refer to a pork-flavored cigarette. I’m dreading the day that I see ads for grill cheese sandwiches served with mull cider!

These misuses strip the expressions of meaning. This slow but steady dumbing down of the language is not new. It has been going on for years and will no doubt continue. What used to be popped corn has become standardized as popcorn, and I imagine that ice cream began its life as iced cream (although the OED shows its usage in the present form as far back as 1744). Professor Henry Higgins, and his creator George Bernard Shaw (author of Pygmalion, the 1912 play on which the musical My Fair Lady is based), are probably rolling over in their (both real and fictional) graves. They would recognize that this sloppy usage is the result of a deteriorating education system, combined with an increasingly careless attitude toward language and precise communication. But I view the complexities and nuances of language as a precious gift which is worth defending.