Back in 1964, only a few weeks into my Florida National Guard career that would last for 30 years, Col. Ed Chassee, deputy commander of what was then the 53rd Armored Brigade, called me aside and said, “Frisbie, you and I are guardians of the printed word in this brigade.”
I had three years of daily newspaper experience to my credit, plus two years of administrative duties and personnel management in the active Army.
My entry job in the Guard was Officer in Charge of the Administrative Services Division. In the civilian world, this would have been called supervisor of the typing pool.
Colonel Chassee’s point was that writing simple, declarative prose was not a common skill in the National Guard of that era, and he had appointed himself and me to do something about that in the 53rd Brigade.
I took Colonel Chassee’s appointment as guardian of the printed (and spoken) word into the civilian workplace with me, and every now and then I set out to identify some of the egregious misuses that journalists, broadcasters and politicians engage in on a daily basis.
By far the most unforgivable misuse is the word “literally,” whose purpose is to declare that a word that sounds like it can’t be true actually is.
“This steak is literally the tenderest I have ever tasted.” (Arguably true.) “It literally melts in your mouth.” (Not unless it’s a steak-flavored Popsicle.) Another common way of identifying something truly remarkable is to identify it as “very, very, very exceptional.” If that doesn’t sound sufficiently declarative, how about adding maybe a dozen exclamation points at the end of the sentence?
Sportscasters are the world’s worst (with the possible exception of meteorologists) when it comes to exaggeration.
No football play was ever “brilliant” or “heroic.”
A couple of weeks ago, I (literally) laughed out loud when a network sportscaster declared Tiger Woods’ victory in the Masters to be “the greatest sports comeback of the century.”
Words fail me.
When the Tampa Bay Lightning lost their fourth consecutive hockey game to be eliminated from contention for the Stanley Cup, a Tampa sportscaster called the loss “heartbreaking.”
The death of a child’s pet is “heartbreaking.” The loss of the first four games of a best-of-seven playoff is “disappointing.”
I have not strayed into a discussion of “who” and “whom.” Use whichever one sounds right and your chances are pretty good that (1) you’re right or (2) not many people will pick up on it if you’re wrong.
I am less forgiving of anyone who is making more than minimum wage who will not learn the correct use of “me” and “I”. I am unforgiving of the use of “myself ” (usually pronounced “muhself ”), often used as “muhself, our other coaches, and our team.”
The use of its and it’s is simple enough. (The apostrophe indicates a contraction; no apostrophe and it’s possessive.) That said, I can’t be too critical of a good friend who explained his rule to me: “I use an apostrophe every third time I use the word.”
(S. L. Frisbie is retired. One of his rules of grammar is to learn the rules so well that you entitle yourself to violate one every now and then because it just plain sounds better.)