Ah, there’s a wonderful old word one rarely hears these days. “Fussbudget” dates back to the turn of the century (the previous turn, not the most recent one) and refers to one who gets worked up about small matters that seem to have little importance. Many people would toss matters about grammar, spelling, punctuation, and usage into that category, and would brush aside my concerns as annoying at best, “anal” at worst. (And an aside — how many people who bandy “anal” about as a criticism actually grasp the underlying Freudian concept? But I guess that would be fussbudgety of me.)
Those who know me well know that I’m rarely serious. Why then do I have such a concern about the written word and the finer points associated with its use?
Two very simple reasons: power and clarity. The English language is such a conglomeration of other tongues that it’s one of the most difficult to learn, but that pedigree also makes it an especially powerful tool. We have such a rich, colorful array of words to choose from, and so many subtle changes in tense and usage that allow us to employ them as precisely as possible. I still remember encountering my first copy of Roget’s, and the foreword that described its purpose as helping the writer find the word with the “precise shade of meaning.” That has been a personal quest ever since.
The better one grasps the subtleties of language, the more powerful that language becomes. Today, though, words are misused so often that we’ve weakened the power of many. Somehow, “use” and “utilize” have become the same word in common parlance, although they’re actually quite different. Somehow, “awful” has come to mean something bad instead of its original role as something that stirs awe in the soul. I could provide many other examples, but I don’t wish to obscure my point: as those subtleties get chipped away, the words lose their inherent power, and their sentences lose clarity.
I don’t defend old rules simply because they’re there. If an old rule is archaic and serves little purpose beyond giving grammar Nazis a weapon, I’m all for making it go away. But many of those old rules still make sense, because they enhance clarity and boost understanding.
So I’ll continue to take swipes at the “professional” writers who should know better. And I’ll continue to do my best to educate those who appreciate the beauty and might of our mother tongue. If taking steps to ensure that language continue to be a versatile, powerful tool makes me a fussbudget in the eyes of some, I’ll wear that sobriquet with pride.