I am a grammar geek. I decry the decline of the English language.
History is on my side. Remember the Ken Burns PBS series The Civil War, which aired around 1990? This was a pioneering series in many ways. Most people remember the cinematographic technique, where Burns panned the camera over period photographs, lending the illusion of movement.
I, however, was most struck by the words of the people who lived during the time of the Civil War. The letters home especially impressed me. Many of the correspondents were common folk, educated to the norms of the time. Yet their writing had such elegance and propriety. Even the “lowly private” writing home to his sweetheart composed solid prose, grammatically correct and with proper syntax.
I reflected on that series when I read letters my grandfather wrote home during World War I. He was raised in Nebraska — born in a humble dwelling dug into a riverbank with sod walls. He joined the Navy Reserve and was activated during the San Francisco earthquake in 1906. Later, he served during the Great War.
His letters, too, were striking. They were models of proper English, though his topics were workaday — once chiding his sister for not having written him more often. I picture him in a cramped compartment on the ship Imperator, carefully composing his letters, which were flawlessly typed, probably on an old battleship-gray Underwood typewriter.
I had to laugh when I read a forum that discussed guides to grammar. Someone brought up “Elements of Style” by Strunk and White, pronouncing it the best for its size and type.
Of course, someone else had to point out that this venerable little text was first published in 1918, and that certainly there was something out there that is more modern and up-to-date.
1918. Hmmm. That was about the time my grandfather wrote his letters.