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Politically Incorrect

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Debate and disagreement are important to democracy

Reina wants to know why a noun requires an article. That’s not how she asks the question, of course. She asks Dustin why she has to say ‘Reina is “a” girl’ and not just ‘Reina is girl.’

Reina, I should explain, grew up in Japan and didn’t speak English until she was 14 or so. That was just a couple of years ago, and she now speaks English better than most Americans I know, but there’s that tricky little nouns-take-an-article issue at hand and she wants an answer. She’s in Tokyo, talking to Dustin over the computer.

Dustin’s a smart young man. He doesn’t know why a noun has to have an article but he has learned the most important thing a student can learn—how to find out the answer to a question. He shouts across the hallway to where I’m typing away at my own computer  screen. Dustin figures that, given how much I moan and groan about the sad state of American grammar today, I’ll know why a noun has to have an article.

And I do know why. “Tell her a noun has to have an article because THAT’S THE RULES,” I tell my son.

Reina wants to understand this, however; after a year in America she was so good with the language she even thought in English. But she recognizes that a big part of mastering a language is knowing the rules that govern it. Her question is serious, and so my answer must be, too.

Hmmm. “Okay,” I type in an instant message to my son so I don’t have to shout across the hallway. “Tell her this: We use an article because it lets you know a noun is coming.”

Dustin passes on my message and sends me one back.

“She wants to know if it always goes before the noun.”

Hmmm. “Well,” I type again, “not always, Reina. Sometimes we choose to modify the noun, and if we do that, then we have to place the article in front of the modifier. I mean, we say ‘a horse’, but we also say ‘a brown horse’ and we can also say ‘a whomper-jawed, cantankerous, stubborn brown horse’ and you have to use the article before ALL the words you’re using to describe the noun.” I was sweating. I remember my English teachers explaining what to do, but I don’t remember them ever explaining why.

“She wants to know why sometimes we use ’a’ and sometimes use ’the,’” Dustin types back.

More sweat. “Uh…. ’the’ indicates something specific. It’s not just any horse, it’s ’the’ horse, a specific horse that’s the subject of whatever you’re talking about. Unless, of course, you’re writing about ’the horse’ and using the words as representative of the entire gosh darn species of animal; as in, “Americans have enjoyed a close relationship with ’the horse’ since the 1700s. But that’s just because even though it’s a group, it’s a specific group.

“Of course, sometimes you use ’a horse’ and not ‘the horse’ even if you’re talking about a specific horse, like when you say “A horse just walked up on my porch,” or some such thing. See, the person you’re talking to has to be able to identify the specific thing you’re talking about. If I told you ‘the’ horse just walked on my porch, I would be assuming that you know what horse I’m talking about.”

I’m sure there’s a better way to explain these things, but Reina’s a smart girl—she gets it. “Why aren’t all animal babies called cubs?” she asks.

English is a frustrating language to explain because there’s so many exceptions to the rules, but I have to admit—I love this kind of conversation. Dick Wentz, and I once spent several days debating the proper use of a dash versus a semi-colon. While proofreading the summer issue of Sandpoint Magazine, the Keokee crew and I discussed the proper plural for bear. Carol Ballard is always up for giving pointers on proper subject/verb agreement and Susie Daffron can become as passionate as I when talking about prepositions and conjunctions and the way many Americans don’t seem to understand the differences between who, which and that.

Lest you think this is the worthless pastime of a bunch of folks who were English nerds at high school, let me point out that proper English usage is the base on which the fate of the world will rest. And no, I’m not talking about George Bush’s uncomfortable relationship with the English language, I’m referring to the ultimate “Why?” behind Reina’s questions.

The rules governing English usage—found in dictionaries, style books, grammar manuals and the like—came about not because they are absolute truths, but because they allow people to communicate accurately. If two people having a conversation understand the rules governing the words they’re using, then they can each understand what the other is trying to say. It’s as simple as that. 

Understanding, of course, is the first step in creating a world where we can all live peacefully together; a principle that’s been amply demonstrated—albeit in absentia— throughout this election season. It wouldn’t be true to say this is the most divisive presidential election ever—just a little bit of time spent delving into the history of this fine nation points out that elections today are mild compared to what they were in the first two centuries of our existence—but people do seem to have forgotten the value in disagreement itself. That’s too bad because, as my good friend, and hero, Blaine Stevens told me many years ago, “I’ve never learned anything from someone who believes everything I believe.”

I don’t quite understand how Americans learned to be so disrespectful of disagreement, because we’re not just a nation conceived in liberty, but one conceived in debate. Patrick Henry, whose Stamp Act Resolutions have sometimes been called “The first shot in the Revolutionary War,” was an ardent proponent of both debate and disagreement, and his skills in these areas were instrumental in the founding of this nation. He once argued, “But different men often see the same subject in different lights; and, therefore, I hope it will not be thought disrespectful to those gentlemen if, entertaining as I do opinions of a character very opposite to theirs, I shall speak forth my sentiments freely and without reserve.”

After successfully helping lead his country into revolution, Henry became an ardent critic of the new Constitution, and was instrumental in the development of the Bill of Rights (That Constitution, by the way, has likely lasted so long because it was debated for two full years before ratification by the states.) With such a foundation, today’s opposition to debate and disagreement not only appears ludicrous, but may be the very thing that negates everything positive that came out of those Constitutional debates. I believe it is time that we all learn what the founders of our country understood without question—that freedom and liberty can only be achieved through the ability of the people to debate, and disagree with, what their government is doing.

Today, the American Conservative reports that “People all over the world, who used to consider the United States a reliable and necessary bulwark of world stability, now see us as a menace to their own peace and security.”

That’s a sobering thought, especially in a world where the United States argues the right of a nation to preemptively attack a country which might be a threat. You don’t have to agree that we are a menace to the world to understand that it is imperative for the American populace to debate and discuss why the world feels this way, and what we should do about it.

“This is no time for ceremony, Henry argued. ”...For my own part, I consider it as nothing less than a question of freedom or slavery; and in proportion to the magnitude of the subject ought to be the freedom of the debate.”

Until, and even after, we cast our ballots on November 2, let us all endeavor to vigorously and freely debate the issues that impact our ability to sustain this world we live in, while maintaining our respect and caring for those with whom we share this world, even if we disagree with what they say. And if you don’t mind… give a thought to us “English nerds” and let’s do it using good grammar.

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Landon Otis

Tagged as:

debate, disagreement, democracy, grammar

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