Epidemic Proportions

If you happened to have Professor Lentz as an English professor when you were an undergrad, you too would have spit out your drink upon seeing this sentence on the home page of The Washington Post this evening:

A combative president assails GOP while rolling out $50B program to rebuild roads, railways and runways — but it’s fate in Congress is in doubt.

“It’s fate”! We pulled Professor Lentz’s trusty Instruction Booklet; Tenth Edition down from the closet shelf and flipped to page 33:

Learn the difference between “its” and “it’s.” “It’s” means only one thing: “it is.” The confusion between these two words is reaching epidemic proportions.

“The U.S. team stretched 150 meters around the track, it’s members becoming delirious as the noise mounted.”

This appears in “Hey, Russia, It’s A Heck Of A Party,” by Kenny Moore in Sports Illustrated, August 6th, 1984, page 30. What it actually says is that “The U.S. team stretched 150 meters around the track, it is members becoming delirious as the noise mounted,” which is incoherent. (You will remark that the word is used correctly, in the title of the story.)

The instructor —

Those of you who did not have Professor Lentz as an English instructor may be unfamiliar with his frequent tendency to refer to himself in the third person, a habit which his students (or at least this particular student) always found endearing —

The instructor finds himself fighting a rear-guard action, in continuing to mark the discrimination between these two words; the culture at large has evidently entirely lost the ability to tell the difference, and new examples of that fact are thrown up daily: e.g., a current (June 1995) advertisement for something running on the HBO cable channel called “Real Sex 12” boldly — in white letters on black background — proclaims that “Sex Has It’s Own Language.” But the instructor remains defiant.

“Real Sex 12” and grammar! Who was this guy? You have no idea how some of us would actually read the Instruction Manual for sheer pleasure, the way other people read People magazine or James Joyce.

A third version of this, “its’,” sometimes appears: e.g., on an information plate at the Anniston (Alabama) Museum of Natural History explaining the nesting habits of the pterodactyl: “its’ nest was probably built on cliffs or rock ledges.” The instructor cannot conceive of a time in normal English usage when this would ever be correct.

Now, we are not claiming to be blameless paragons of grammar virtue. Our copy editor and fact checker is an obese cat, after all. But we are also not The Washington Post.

There are many kind things that can be said about Professor Lentz, but we’ll say just this one tonight: Fifteen years after taking ENGL 1-2, we still take umbrage at sloppy grammar from anyone (especially the paper that brought down Nixon) who should know better.

Thank you, Professor Lentz. May you always remain defiant.


6 thoughts on “Epidemic Proportions

  1. Things I particularly love at this moment:
    1) Prof. Lentz
    2) Prof. Lentz’s Instruction Booklet (yeah, I was one of those pleasure readers)
    3) Ben Vore
    4) Voreblog

    And while the commenter is in no small part loving 3 & 4 at this moment because of the sweet remembrance of 1 & 2 which they provided, he can imagine many other circumstances in which love of 3 & 4 obtain.

    Thanks for making my night.

  2. Well, I’m just glad that you were willing to commit yourself to enjoying a life dedicated to proper grammar rather than living an intransitive life in which you merely commit and enjoy.

  3. I loved that Instruction Booklet. It’s a crying shame I no longer have my copy. I was trying to explain it to someone the other day, in fact. Explanation cannot do it justice, however. It has to be seen. And read. From cover to cover.

    Not that any of us did that. No one here, certainly.

  4. At the risk of alienating absolutely everyone else who may be interested in this comment thread: Jenny and John — what was your favorite Instruction Booklet number?

    #44 was not my favorite, but it is the one I happened to derive the most pleasure from rereading this evening:

    “It is critical to school yourself to avoid the ‘trying to say’ or ‘trying to relate’ or ‘trying to put across the idea that’ business. From a paper on Shakespeare’s Sonnet #130:

    ‘Shakespeare is trying to tell his mistress that he really does love her.’

    This (1) totally misrepresents the creative process — authors don’t ‘try to say’ things, they try to achieve fulfillment, fame and fortune by writing books, plays, epics, poems, etc. It (2) implies that Shakespeare has probably failed, and it (3) implicitly argues that Shakespeare could have benefitted from the services of the student writing the theme, who was able to put into one cogent, five-word phrase what the poor dumb fellow (William Manchester calls him ‘the greatest poet in history’) wrestled with so fruitlessly.”

    I finish reading that, and take a deep, contented sigh.

    1. I am so relieved to see a community of friends as grammatically misguided and needlessly pedantic as I am. Thank you, VoreBlog, for this!

      I will add to the list the #1 pet peeve of my 12th-grade English teacher, Mr. Grahler: the use of “he/she” as a pronoun. Mr. Grahler was right to point out that, unless you are referring to an unreconciled hermaphrodite or a mid-transition transsexual, there is no “he/she”… it’s creepy.

      As to Ben’s point above, will also add my own conversational pet-peeve: when folks precede a comment with “yeah, I was just going to say that [insert statement here].” Were you? Were you just going to say that? Well thank god you didn’t actually say that… that you were just going to. Let me know when you decide if you will say that, I’ll be looking forward to hearing it again.

      While the soapbox is out, I’m going to tag-team that one with the question, “Can I ask you a question?” ‘Nuff said.


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