“The greatest danger to our way of life is the decline of grammar.” I read this and returned, face-down, to the living room rug. Not war, not poverty, not obesity, not hunger, not sloth, not ADHD, not corporate welfare, not social welfare, not an ineffectual government, not a giant asteroid, not $2 Chicken McNuggets. The decline of grammar. I put a pillow over my head for good measure. The insistence that “bad grammar”–by which Gwynne and plenty others really mean “usages I don’t like”–will eventually lead to anarchy makes me want to burn shit down, man. Not only is it a pathetic attempt at fearmongering on the most inane scale ever, but history proves otherwise. It is possible for “bad usages” to thrive in ignominy, lexical bastards, without doing any damage at all to English.
I can control the weather with my moods. I just can’t control my moods.
In 2002, having spent more than three years in one residence for the first time in my life, I got called for jury duty. I show up on time, ready to serve. When we get to the voir dire, the lawyer says to me, “I see you’re an astrophysicist. What’s that?” I answer, “Astrophysics is the laws of physics, applied to the universe—the Big Bang, black holes, that sort of thing.” Then he asks, “What do you teach at Princeton?” and I say, “I teach a class on the evaluation of evidence and the relative unreliability of eyewitness testimony.” Five minutes later, I’m on the street.
A few years later, jury duty again. The judge states that the defendant is charged with possession of 1,700 milligrams of cocaine. It was found on his body, he was arrested, and he is now on trial. This time, after the Q&A is over, the judge asks us whether there are any questions we’d like to ask the court, and I say, “Yes, Your Honor. Why did you say he was in possession of 1,700 milligrams of cocaine? That equals 1.7 grams. The ‘thousand’ cancels with the ‘milli-’ and you get 1.7 grams, which is less than the weight of a dime.” Again I’m out on the street.