In precise terms

I make sandwiches in order to pay my way way through graduate school. Many others I know of tutor or bartend or wait tables. In my case I had previously managed a Quizno’s, so the job itself wears on me for various reasons, but it is not difficult and I am not required to think too hard. One of the reasons that the jobs wears on me is customer interaction. At some level this is frustration built up by noisy, messy customers, screaming children, the near criminal levels of impoliteness exhibited daily. I think that people are mostly harmless, but also egotistical, narcissistic, picky, stressed, rude, impolite, ignorant and much more. Nowhere is this more true than in food service where people come in when hungry and the emphasis is on fast, accurate and, for the most part, anonymous service. This shop is not your small town deli, and I have noted that society somewhere along the line decided that not knowing someone gives you permission to be rude to them. Now people who know each other are quite often rude, too, but one would hope that there was some legitimate cause. In the case of the anonymous, the reason just seems to be that anonymity equals non-existence and people may be rude without repercussion.

Note that I am currently at work and in a misanthropic mood as I write this. In fact most customers fall into a middle range, not particularly polite, but not rude, and there are any number whose manners are impeccable (manners being related to, but not the same thing as table etiquette). There is just a very large percentage of the customer base who may not know what “please” actually means.

But as much as manners and other decencies dropped upon entrance frustrate me, what bothers me the most is the bastardization of the English language. Even more is that the mistakes are the same few, repeated ad nauseam (usually between two or three repetitions and I have reached that level myself). But then the phrases required to order a sandwich are not all that complex. Moreover, when I have mentioned this to people in the past, they have argued that I am witnessing and fighting against the evolution of s living language. This, too, bothers me because it is giving approval to a process whereby the language becomes ever simpler, but intrinsically less coherent.

English itself is already an imprecise language. When I took a course dedicated to translating English to Greek, our first step was to interpret exactly what the English said before determining if our Greek was accurate. Case systems, genders and position rules make other languages much more flexible and at the same time lucid. English does have certain virtues, but I wonder sometimes if the inherently murky and difficult aspects of the language lend it to corruption.

To prevent too much ranting, I shall spend the rest of this post on two issues: precision and adverbs.

Starting with the latter, I would like to see adjectives, adverbs and their different uses taught in schools. It pains me when I ask someone how they are doing, and their response is “I am doing good”. Every single time I am forced to bite back a follow up question asking what exactly they are doing that is good. Furthermore their response has not actually answered my question. The response “I am good” also does not answer the question, but only tells me that person’s perception on what alignment they adhere to. Feeling good is better, but suggests that they may generally tend more towards neutrality or evil on the grand cosmic scale.

Then there is precision. This is an aspect that I have thrust upon me fairly often on account of writing, with mismatched pronouns, but applies more generally, too. Issues such as the difference between “Can I have?” and “May I have?” and “I need”. At work I can’t actually say many of these things because the objective is to keep these people coming into the restaurant, but the basic fact remains that the accuracy of the statement “I need” can be directly called into question. Even the phrase “Give me…”, which I find a rude imperative, actually carries with it a request, in direct contrast to “I need”, which is just a statement. Beyond the doors of Quizno’s the same issues remain with greater consequences. One example of this is the replacement of the word “minimum” with “minimal”, which drastically alters what the statement says (in regard to standardized testing and standards being met).

In regards to these complaints, I am sometimes called an elitist and/or a snob. While both of these descriptors fit me well from time to time, this is not one of those instances. Hoping for accuracy and that people will mean what they say is not the mark of being a snob. Using big words properly and knowing multiple dead languages is snobbish, but the terribly novel idea that people actually use their native language correctly, rather than watering it down and simplifying it beyond recognition is not.

Now if only the school systems would agree with me.


Addendum: For what it is worth, I think part of the problem is the number of subjects which regard teaching writing and speaking as none of their concern. Personally I think it is part of the duties of English (though teaching something beyond Strunk and White would probably be good), but beyond bare minimums, other fields, including history, need to take some responsibility.

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