The Grumpy Grammarian: Confessions of a Humble Grammarian

Believe it or not, I wasn’t always perfect. (And I write that, perfectly aware that there ought to be a smiley face or “ha-ha” at the end.)

I was in college--grad school, I think--when I was made aware of the difference between “less” and “fewer.”

(In case you’re still having trouble, I’ll give you a short lesson: “less” is for quantities; “fewer” is for numbered amounts--things you can count. So, for example, you may have less money but fewer dollars; less beer but fewer bottles of beer. See? Nowadays, people’s tendency is to use “less” for everything. We don’t hear many folks say, “Put fewer water in my mixed drink,” but we do hear them say, “There are less policemen on the streets than there used to be.”)

When I was in college, I thought “all right” should be spelled two different ways: “all right,” meaning “fine in body and spirit,” “everything correct,” and “alright” as a substitute for the word “okay.” Sadly, I was disabused--by the American Heritage Dictionary, I think: there is no such word as “alright” (even though we see it written like that all over the place). So I had to learn to write “all right” in every instance.

When I was much younger, I used to think that two of the many Indian tribes of North America were the “Soo” and the “See-ox”--which, as you have probably already guessed, is because I didn’t know that Sioux was pronounced “Soo.” Imagine my surprise ...!

Of course, we shouldn’t get into pronunciation because that’s a whole ’nuther ballgame. In grade school, I prided myself on being a good reader. So I was puzzled when my teacher made me read and reread one passage what seemed like a dozen times. I was doing it right. What was her problem? Well--without explaining to me (so how could I know?)--she was trying to get me not to pronounce the word “just” (as in “it just happened”) as “jist,” which, I guess, was a regionalism or family pronunciation I had picked up. I don’t say “jist” anymore (unless I’m trying to get the gist of things), but I just wish she would have told me.

Pronunciation is something I should really stay away from because--though I might get annoyed by the fact that people in that one state insist on saying they’re from “MissourAH” despite the fact that the name ends in an i (do they ever visit MississippAH?), and though I might wonder why citizens of that town in Washington think the last syllable of Spokane is “can” and not “cane” (did any of them go to TuLAN University?)--I only need to look around at the place names in my own state (Michigan) and city (Detroit, for all intents and purposes) to see that pronunciations are idiosyncratic.

For some puzzling reason, the Mackinac Bridge and Mackinac Island are pronounced “MackinAW.” (To make matters worse we have a Mackinaw City, which is not pronounced “MackinAC.”) We have a town in Michigan spelled Sault Ste. Marie but pronounced “Soo Saint Marie.” Which brings us to all those French place names in Detroit (it was settled by the French, you know, in 1701), which we butcher/Anglicize into something sorta resembling the original. For instance, I live near a street called Cadieux, which ought to be pronounced so that it rhymes with the French adieu. Well, it does, kind of--it rhymes with the way Americans try to pronounce adieu, so it comes out as “CADGE-oo.”

There’s another French-looking street, Gratiot, one of Detroit’s three main arteries (the other two are Woodward and Grand River), which gives outsiders no end of trouble when it comes to pronunciation. Actually, it turns out that “Gratiot” was the name of a British captain, so its French origins are even more obscured. And we pronounce it “GRASH-it”--rhymes with “cash it.” (I can’t tell you how many non-natives are stopped by that pronunciation because what they hear is “Gra-SHIT.”)

But pronunciation is pronunciation, and I used to tell my students, “I don’t care how you talk; it’s in your writing that you need to be precise.” (However, I will tell you that I was startled, some thirty-five years ago, when a friend and colleague, describing a certain distortion of the face, called it a “gri-MACE.” Now, I will readily admit that grimace has the kind of spelling with the “silent e” that generally makes the preceding vowel long and that “gri-MACE” is one of the acceptable pronunciations, according to various dictionaries (like Webster’s New World). However, would you talk about a me-NACE to society? Do you have a fur-NACE in your basement to heat your home? Do you polish the sur-FACE of your car? Grimace, like menace, furnace, and surface ends in an “i-s” sound. So there.)

Thank you, and good day.

Anthony Ambrogio, anthonyambrogio@sbcglobal.net