Browsing a New York Times newsletter, I have to stop and re-read several times before confirming, via Google, my sense that the writer has gotten it wrong.
The line in the newsletter is “Racial gaps in reading skills also shrunk during this period.” The writer used a past participle instead of a simple past tense. (Thank you, Elisabeth Hooker, or was it Mrs. Murphy who taught us grammar in the eighth grade?) The “also” refers to math inequalities between Black students and white students shrinking compared to the late 1990s and early 2000s. Very good news indeed about historic disparities in educational resources and outcomes. But the verb just sounds wrong.
I don’t want to detract from the hopeful message. But I am nonetheless exercised by sloppy grammar. Is grammar important in a world in which perilous despair characterizes our historic moment? Reading Rebecca Solnit’s Orwell’s Roses (Viking, 2021), I am reminded why the English language in George Orwell’s 1984 is shrunk by the authorities into Newspeak.
It is Winston Smith’s colleague at the Ministry of Truth who declares, “Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible because there will be no words in which to express it.”
Solnit adds, “Each word is a set of relationships … a species in an ecosystem. Eventually the system collapses into ruins as thinking becomes impossible, the way an ecosystem collapses when key species become extinct.”
One of Solnit’s organizing arguments in the book revolves around how ethics and aesthetics are inseparable for Orwell. This leads to some remarkably uplifting insights from his life and writing.
Taking a break from my distress with the Times newsletter, I gaze out on the end stages of the yellow season. Forsythia’s yellow blossoms have turned brown and blown away. The daffodils in the yard and in vases on the table are wrinkling up. But the sea of dandelions in the grass has only just arrived. The impulse toward optimism surrounds the house with budding leaves. And that story in the newsletter suggests that U.S. education may be improving across the board since the late 1990s.
It might remind us to pay attention to the 20-somethings around us. Also, to the populations starting to achieve equity in this particular study. While there are different languages in which to express ourselves in our diversity, learning and agreeing to certain rules of grammar may not be a classist issue, as some say, so much as an aesthetic issue and one of clarity and coherence of thought, shared among people, who then have a chance for coherent collaborative action in this needy world.
Seth Rolbein, back when he was publishing the Cape Cod Voice, wrote about how there’s no such thing as the “big time” versus the “small time.” I recognized his message, as would anyone who has lived publicly and large in an urban setting, which was this: do not overestimate the infallibility of “big-time” media and powerful voices, and do not underestimate the importance and potential influence of endeavors undertaken with integrity in our small towns of the Outer Cape.