This is about what qualifies an individual as a cultured person. It is perforce so from my particular point of view; from someone else’s, it may well differ. According to Bryan Garner’s important “Garner’s Modern English Usage,” a cultured person has a “cultivated mind, well trained and highly developed.” But just who is that? Here are my views and touchstones, to borrow Matthew Arnold’s term.
To begin with, we must recognize that “cultured” is not quite synonymous with “civilized.” A civilized person spits not on the sidewalk but in the gutter, and lets a lady off the elevator ahead of himself. But he may very well not know who Pasteur or LaRochefoucauld was. I have my own, highly subjective criteria of what makes a cultured person, one who avoids the common mistakes I am about to discuss. It constitutes my notion of someone well-educated, well-spoken, and presumably also well-behaved, except where wit or irony is called for.
Take the illiterate pronunciation of “groceries” as “grosheries,” which some unfortunates consider genteel rather than crassly ignorant. It displays ignorant spelling, if the ignoramus were spelling at all, as of “glacier,” with a “ci” rather than a simple “c” as in “groceries” which is without an “i” after the “c.” You hear it all over television, and just about anywhere else.
Or take the problem of “lie” and “lay,” with the former ineptly dropped from the majority of people’s vocabularies. Few persons now understand that “lay” means movement, as in “I lay the book on the table” or “I lay me down to sleep.” Yet no such locomotion is involved in “the book is lying or lies on the table.” At a leading hospital, I heard all the nurses and even some younger doctors say “Now lay on your side” or “You should lay asleep by now.” It turns my stomach to hear this from anyone, but especially from someone who should know better. But “lie”—possibly as an unfortunate homophone for mendacity—has pretty much gone the way of the dodo and the hoop-skirt.
What now about the difference between number and quantity, a frequent pitfall? One should say I now have fewer bad dreams, or its better to have fewer than three children. Where a number of separable items is concerned, it is fewer, as in fewer wrong answers on a quiz. But when measuring is inappropriate or impossible, as in the grains of sand on a beach or in how much you care about a vote in Turkey, it is a matter of less rather than fewer. But the ignorant tendency favors “less” incorrectly, as in less theatergoers on Mondays, or there should be less stations on this train. So it is also less hair on my head, but the fewer hairs in the soup, the better. The former is still not readily measurable, hence less (amount); whereas the number of spoonfuls of a medicine at bedtime is fewer than in the morning. “More” is an exception that goes either way; hence more cups of coffee with more sugar in it.
Now for a business that affects me more than it does others: the name of the great writer Bernard Shaw. He dropped the George, and made amply clear that he did not want to be George Bernard Shaw, as all semiliterates, have it to this day. But the scholars and fans who know his explicit wishes, know that every responsible text of his, such as the seven-volume “Definitive Edition of the Collected Plays with their Prefaces” is by Bernard Shaw, not George Bernard Shaw. Thus it is that the astute Germans, who loved and steadily translated, published, and performed him, referred to him, without exception, as Bernard Shaw. But show me a printed reference, especially in America, that does not saddle him with a hypertrophic frontal George, to say nothing about this aberrant form even from literati who should know better,
While we are on improper usage, how about wanting to “have one’s cake and eat it too.” This, though Bryan Garner in the aforementioned work accepts it on the basis of current frequency, is absurd. What you cannot achieve is eating your cake and having it too, as Garner admits that earlier writers and speakers (less benighted than the current crop), did invariably get it right. Just think (as most people don’t): you can both jolly well have your cake on Monday, and eat it too on Saturday. But if you have eaten it, no magic or fridge or emetic will have it thereafter. So clearly,
both having and eating does not compute. But all it takes is the one unfortunate who says grosheries or errs about that cake, and before long the lemmings will follow.
What people say—wrongly—is, alas, catching. This is particularly blatant in matters of pronunciation. It used to be always that something was exquisite; slowly but surely it has become accepted also as exquizite, as the dictionaries, rightly or wrongly have it, going by the vox populi. My perhaps oversensitive stomach turns each time I hear it, which is often enough to make my stomach emulate a whirling dervish.
Next we have what the great linguist H.W. Fowler called genteelism. It occurs when the ignorant speaker says “Between you and I,” or “Thank you for inviting my wife and I,” thinking that “I” is more refined than “me,” “less soiled by the lips of the common herd,” as Fowler puts it. Contributing to this misuse is that English is a noninflected language, a trap no German with his declensions distinguishing between an objective and a nominative case would fall into.
Equally repulsive are verbal trends, choices of words and phrases that have become popular in a given period, from whose constant hearing no discriminating speaker is immune. It comes in large measure as one of many blessings showered upon us by television. For some time now the chief offender has been “amazing,” which, leach-like, attaches itself to just about anyone and everything. One gathers that verbally deprived persons are amazed by people and things right and left, whereas one amazing, about human crassness, would quite suffice. This has grated on my well being, which brings me to something similarly appalling if done to the word “well.”
It used to be that if someone asked how you are, and you were, or thought you were, all right (always two words, please), you said “I am well, thank you.” Now you hear from just about everyone “I am good.” But this is nonsense, unless you were trying to say you were a good person, which most people have the sense to avoid. Who knows what would justify calling oneself good, but this much is certain: if you were manifestly good, you would avoid the need and boastfulness of proclaiming it.
Another trendy word these days is “conversation.” Formerly it had one specific meaning: talk between two or among more persons. Nowadays, however, a seemingly endless number of things, some not in the least positive, is called conversation, most of which having nothing to do with exchanged utterances. If you believed what you heard or read, you would think you were living in a world of ceaseless dialogue—which, come to think, as chatter and you actually and regrettably are.
A deplorable loss is that of the sweet, harmless word “as,” which has been pretty much devoured by the omnivorous “like.” No one anymore says “as I think”; it is always “like I think,” even if you don’t particularly practice or like thinking. And I am not even thinking of that other “like,” which now infests, like a horrible disease, almost every conversation. This may stem from insecurity: if things are introduced with a “like,” it may not be considered as committing, as binding, as they would be without it. It is making a dreadful virtue out of imprecision, and out of evasion of responsibility.
I will not go into the problem of “who” and “whom," to which Garner devotes a goodly amount of print, but I do want to register my displeasure with one mistake that occurs fairly often in my morning New York Times, and which may also qualify as a genteelism. It is what I would call the mistaken predicate, and it goes like this, to make up an example: “He is one of those poets who is better read aloud.” What is wrong with this? The subject here is not “He,” which would take a singular “is,” but “poets,” which requires a plural “are.” Hence the correct form is “He is one of those poets who are better read aloud.” Tell that to some reasonably cultured but errant writers one reads.
Let me conclude with two ubiquitous mistakes so common in past, present, and doubtless future times. They are the nauseating “I mean” and “you know,” scattered all over speech and hopelessly redundant and useless. Presumably you mean what you are saying, so there is no need to affirm it. And if you have reasonable doubt that some knowledge is needed in your hearer; you simply have to acknowledge that a hopeful “you know” will not generate understanding; you simply have to be clearer to begin with. Peppering your talk with those clichés, however, will only annoy a cultured hearer. But if he or she is uncultured, why bother in the first place?
The trouble with being a cultured person in today’s America is that you end up underpaid if not unemployed. It helps enormously to be practical rather than cultured. In my own experience, I was practical only once in my lifetime, shortly after World War Two in the Air Force, for which I was useless, having neither the inner ear for flying nor the gift for a grease monkey. So I ended up in tasks like KP (kitchen police), in this instance chopping onions for a huge soldiery. As I and my fellow choppers started shedding tears, I came up with a grand idea: Why in hell were we issued gas masks if we don’t use them? Well, they were perfect for chopping onions, and forthwith there were no more tears for me and my fellow choppers. We must have been some sight, but, by golly, it worked: we were as dry-eyed as at those 40s comedies we saw at the movies.