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Watch Your Language

The late Roy Cornish always reminded me of Alfred Hitchcock. He even breathed like him. Roy was the managing editor of the Trentonian for many years and he had a penchant for the English language and its correct usage. His columns were often about grammar which made me uncomfortable since I was a columnist at that paper at the time and I knew my grammar wasn’t always perfect, and could almost visualize him reading through my prose and shaking his head.  He was proud of his newspaper and I am sure he went through every article, every news item and every ad with a fine tooth comb in an effort to make the final product error free. So, you can imagine his reaction when he sat back in his easy chair at home and had a look at the latest edition and his eyes followed the cutline beneath the front page photo of a burning garage. The priceless cutline stated that the garage was “extensively destroyed” by the fire. The following week I found myself sitting in my easy chair, waiting to open the paper and read his column for I knew what was to come. Roy’s entire column was again about English grammar, in particular, the superfluous use of descriptives in the destruction of the garage.   “There are no degrees of destruction!” he shouted editorially, the words almost leaping into the air. “Something is either destroyed, or it is not!” Roy concluded his column by saying that it was the first time that he had actually taken the pages of the Trentonian, and flung them into the air.

Roy would surely turn over in his grave today if he listened to some of the newscasters who speak of the weather for “tiday and timorrow”, the “rem-en-ants” of a recent hurricane, or about people who suffer from “Alltimers.” What is so difficult about “Alzheimer’s” that the name has to be so tormented? The disease is named after German physician Alois Alzheimer, who first described it in 1906. He wasn’t an all timer, nor was he an old timer – he was an Alzheimer.

You have to be of my vintage to remember the late Frank Tumpane. Frank Tumpane wrote for the defunct Toronto Telegram in the 1960s. He was a columnist, but he didn’t write about nature, at least, that I can recall. He wrote about issues relating to the city in which he lived, and he didn’t mind calling a spade a spade, and saying what he felt. He was a powerful writer, and I truly admired his work, back at a time when as a new columnist myself for the Picton Gazette, I was trying to adopt a style and find my own place in the writers’ world.  I never met Frank Tumpane, but I did meet his son Michael two years ago. Michael and his wife hired me to take them on a tour of Prince Edward County. That’s when he gave me the book – two books, actually. One called Language Moves, and another Watch Your Language. The latter book was one his father always kept on his desk at the Telegram. Michael didn’t turn over these books to me because he felt I needed them, although probably I do. They came into my hands as a result of lively recollections we both had of one column in particular that his father wrote in the 1960s about English grammar. In that column, Frank questioned the notion that English grammar should not accommodate itself to change, simply because somebody in 1840 decided that thoughts on paper should be expressed in a certain way.  “One of the most revered edicts,” he wrote in one column, “is that which forbids the splitting of infinitives, yet I have seen many examples in which the flow of the sentence as well as its meaning, was enhanced by splitting an infinitive. “Why is it wrong to write,” he continued, “ ‘they told the boys to quickly dash from the burning building’? Does it detract from the meaning to split the infinitive? I say it does not.” He gave other examples such as the old rule that forbids the use of contractions. “Why cannot you?” he asked. He said that whole generations of kids have had to do dreadful things in learning English grammar, things like “parse the italicised words,”  and “select the subordinate clauses and state the kind and relation of each.”  However, Frank was quick to point out that he wasn’t advocating verbal anarchy by believing these things, and that one of the chief glories of English has been its ability to accommodate itself to change, but tradition, to have any value, must serve the present. However, he admitted there have to be rules.

I will conclude with the words of Frank Tumpane’s son who penned an inscription in the book that I now own,  “…..with the thought that grammar exists only to better convey meaning.”  Michael is truly his father’s son. His book, containing Frank’s faded signature, now sits on my desk beside the computer. I don’t intend to extensively destroy either book tiday or timorrow .

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About the Author: Terry Sprague became interested in nature at an early age. "Growing up on the family farm at Big Island, 12 miles north of Picton, on the shore of the beautiful Bay of Quinte, I was always interested in the natural world around me. During my elementary school days at the small one-room school I attended on Big Island, I received considerable encouragement from the late Marie Foster, my teacher in Grades 6 through 8. Her home was a short distance from where I lived and through the years she was responsible for developing my interest in birds. The late Phil Dodds, a former editor with the Picton Gazette, also a great nature enthusiast, suggested I undertake a nature column - a column I have submitted weekly since 1965. The column has since expanded to the Napanee Beaver and the Tweed News. Life has been good, and through the years I have enjoyed working with such nature related agencies as Glenora Fisheries Research as a resource technician, Sandbanks Provincial Park as a park interpreter and Quinte Conservation as a naturalist and outdoor events coordinator. As a nature interpreter, currently working from my home office, I now create and lead numerous interpretive events in the area and offer indoor audio/visual presentations to interested groups. Could one who is interested in nature have enjoyed a more exhilarating period in the work force?" Terry's website is

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  1. Louisa says:

    Oh, you’ve got me all nervous now…right in time for the back to school ghost anxiety I get every first of September (how many errors are in that sentence alone?).

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