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Marauding English majors

April 19th, 2006 by dk

Have you seen the new Missouri license plates? They prove beyond doubt that we must urgently find meaningful work for English majors before they destroy all we hold dear.

Missouri has long been known as and has long declared itself to be the “Show-Me State.” Did you catch that? All that’s new on the license plate slogan is the little hyphen. “When two words combine to modify a noun following them, the words are hyphenated.” That’s the rule. There are exceptions, but clearly here the rule applies. Show and Me do not separately modify State, nor can either be read to modify the other modifier. Hence the hyphen.

English majors (present company included) are mostly an introspective bunch. We will often correct a friend who uses “me” when preferred construction demands “I.” As a result, we are often not included in later conversations that include “we” versus “us.” We’re left alone most of the time.

We have illusions of grandeur. Who doesn’t? We imagine saving a dangling participle or heroically conjoining a split infinitive, but these are thoughts we keep to ourselves. But for how much longer? “Begin a sentence with a conjunctive only rarely.”

The trouble started when merchandising shifted the conversation from quality to quantity. For a full generation, the upper right corner of every package was reserved for English majors, where they would riff on the latest expression of “New and Improved!”:

“Now Even Whiter and Brighter!”
“With Fewer Sulfites for a Cleaner Taste!”
“Faster & Easier Than Ever!”
“The Brand Dolphins Would Prefer!”
“New Bottle — Shaped More Like Your Hand!”

It was good work and there was plenty of it. But then suddenly one day that space became filled with “33% More, Same Low Price!”

Like it or not, English majors have to eat. “New and Improved!” wasn’t always honest work, but you knew where you could find it. Seldom in the left corner, almost always in the right, and never ever near the bottom.

But now English majors take whatever work they can get. License plate design? Sure, why not? A slogan that a state has had for a hundred years surely can use a little update. Who wouldn’t want a New and Improved slogan? (The state motto, unfortunately, didn’t get touched. It’s still “Salus Populi Suprema Lex Esto.” You probably already knew that.)

Don’t think this meddling with a state’s century-old (notice the hyphen) slogan is an isolated incident.

A couple months ago I heard one of the nation’s foremost sportscasters remark three times in ten minutes that one of the teams had “three remaining times out.” That’s right. “The plural is never attached to the modifier; its always attached to the noun.” Even bigamists can’t have several mother-in-laws. They are mothers-in-law.

Why did it matter how many times out the team had left? The announcer didn’t say so explicitly, but it was because they were two touches-down behind. English majors with time on their hands will wreak havoc in every corner of society. We were better off when they had their own corner.

Marauding packs of English majors will soon be taking to the streets, carrying properly punctuated protest signs, chanting complete sentences, and demanding the right to describe their plight with the full story arc, including exposition in the front and denouement at the end. (The comma before the final item in a series is optional and not preferred, except in the case where some of the items so complicated as to warrant commas within the items themselves.)

Do you see the trouble we’re in for?

“Never end a sentence with a preposition.”

Do you see the trouble in for which we are?

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