"Eighty percent of success is showing up."
-- Woody Allen
You can blame my sixth-grade teacher, Miss Redding, for my picky attitude about grammar. She's the one who scheduled those monthly "good grammar weeks" and devised a system of punishment and rewards that only someone with my temperament would win every time.
All during those weeks we kept pencil and paper handy to write down the names of anyone who made a grammatical error, including the nature -- and corrected version -- of the oral crime. I always had the longest list -- of errors, I mean, in addition to enemies. But I didn't care. Being right means never having to say you're lonely for lack of friends. You could say I was destined to be a writer. Besides needing a healthy grasp of good grammar, it's a profession you can do alone.
I've gotten better. (In an earlier life I never would have used any form of the word "got" in a sentence.) I'm still more critical than necessary, perhaps, of my own grammar, but I no longer rush to correct every error I hear when spoken by someone else -- children and grandchildren excepted -- and I have been able to part with some correct but stilted speech, such as: "With whom do you wish to speak?" I'll also excuse an unnecessary preposition at the end of a sentence, which is better than saying, "There are some things up with which I will not put." But in the area of prepositions there are some un-necessaries I just can't let go by. (Note: In this case "by" is an adverb, not a preposition.)
Take, for example, the prodigious "at." I still hear fingernails coursing down a (sixth-grade) blackboard whenever I hear, "Where's that at?" or worse, "Where you at?" Even the grammatically challenged rarely reply, "I at here," although with the preposition in the middle of the sentence, there would be some merit to such a statement, especially if a verb were included. A simple, "where is that?" or "where are you?" is sufficient, in addition to being correct.
This was intended to lead into a discussion of the merits and abuses of the word "up." I already had at hand a humorous article with nearly 50 questionable uses of the preposition and sometime adverb, but thought I should check my dictionary just to make certain the author had the correct information.
He didn't. In addition to the "up the hill," etc., preposition which should not be at the end of a sentence, and the "coming up the road" adverb which is allowed whatever the position, I also learned "up" can be used as three more of the seven parts of speech -- pronouns and conjunctions excepted. With preposition and adverb already explained, it's proper to use this little word as an adjective, "the up side of the situation"; as a verb, "to up the ante"; or even as the noun (or predicate nominative) in "the mood is up." My sympathy has just increased for those among us struggling to learn English as a second language.
Still, despite such an array of permission slips attached to this versatile word, abuses abound. Consider the following:
It's easy to understand saying "up" when direction is indicated, such us in stand up, wake up, etc., but where is the direction in speak up, fix up, or dress up?
Why do we say a topic "came up for discussion," the officers "were up for re-election," or "it was up to the secretary to type up the report?"
Why again do we "call up our friends," "lock up the house," "warm up leftovers" and "clean up the kitchen"? And is there a linguistic reason to say "stir up trouble," "line up for tickets," "work up an appetite," or "think up excuses"? Pity the poor foreigner again before you tell him we "open up a store in the morning and close it up at night," or "open up a drain because it is stopped up."
There's more, but since my space is up I must wind up this column because I have used up all my pre-publication time. But perhaps, with this little exercise, I've brightened up your day.
(Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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