An apology to the English language

Published 1:03 pm Monday, October 3, 2011

By JASON MAYFIELD / Guest Columnist

Forgive me, English language, for I have sinned.

A few weeks ago, I was on my way from my grandmother’s house when she called, “See ya later, alligator!”

English language, you know best that upon conversion as one of your “protectors” — first as a journalist and then as a teacher — I’ve tried through the years to resist the temptation of misusing your name and your rules. With my grandmother, I knew the proper response was something like “Take care, Grandmother,” one that would avoid the heresy of cliché. Many of the faith, fanatical flock flee from temptation much easier. Those teachers speak of posting “graveyard word walls,” entombing the words “stuff” and “thing” and verbs that don’t “do” and leaving them for the dead to speak of — or compose to paper.

English language, the teacher’s method of “getting better at writing by learning what words never to write” has been about as successful as the “get your mind right by avoiding rock ‘n roll” sermons preached in the 1950s — oh, and 60s, (Well, for that matter, ever since rock’n roll started). Youth seem to possess a sixth sense that draws them to anything they’re specifically told to avoid.

English, forgive me for proposing a radical alternative, but maybe your protectors — teachers — would be better off letting dead words bury themselves and rewarding those students that take risks in their work. Perhaps we teachers could give bonus for a well-patterned phrase instead of looking for overused words — or well-worn clichés. Working with the gifted and talented, I see perfectionists write “safe” essays — when the students are capable of stretching for so much more. I want youth to dare to write brilliantly, even venturing to bring “dead” words or clichés back to life in a creative turn. So dear English language, forgive me, but when grandmother said “See ya later alligator!” I said “After while, crocodile.” I knew I’d end up in confessional for straying from the narrow path of “righteous” writing, but I promise I’ll write a few more columns as penance and make it up to you.

Jason Mayfield is a gifted instructor at Columbiana Middle School.